Posted on August 20, 2009

Racial Tension Simmers on Martha’s Vineyard As Barack Obama Arrives

London Telegraph, August 20, 2009

When Barack Obama arrives on Martha’s Vineyard for his first family holiday as president, he will enjoy the sparkling sea, salty air and fresh fish and clams.

And like others he will probably be unaware of the thousands of illegal immigrants the island relies on during its summer season.

But in the recession, a small army of dishwashers, gardeners and labourers, mostly from Brazil, has created a simmering tension with some locals and amid the excitement over the impending trip of the Obamas, some islanders hope their visit will bring attention to problems with immigration.

In an editorial on growing interest in the build-up to the presidential holiday, the Martha’s Vineyard Times commented wryly: “With few vacation details left to uncover, the press has adopted a storyline of an Island inhabited by happy, clam-raking yeomen simmering in racial, multicultural harmony. This is a ‘special’ place and there is no shortage of folks willing to let others know how special their special connection is.”

Yet last year, racial relations became stretched near breaking point when a local, white girl named Brandy Gibson was killed in a car accident with an unlicensed Brazilian in the country illegally.

Comments on local newspaper websites turned nasty. “Illegal Brazilians, I think you can see . . . it is time for you to go. What will it be next time? A car full of tourist kids? Then we’d all be scr*w*d,” wrote one islander in an anonymous posting.

Residents who were prepared their name included Jon Parkinson, who wrote: “Why is it that young people interested in learning the trades find that many of the entry level positions are filled by Brazilian laborers? Certain segments of the core industries that drive Island life (landscaping, painting, etc.) have all but been taken over by labor provided by illegal immigrants. These are people who drive cars, delivery vans and often large trucks in every town, day and night.”

Reaction to the incident subsided when it was revealed that Miss Gibson, 20, was travelling at 82 miles per hour and the sandwich delivery van driven by Francellyo Dias at nine miles per hour.

Plenty of locals spoke up against the reaction, including the editors of the Vineyard Gazette. “There is no question that Mr Dias should not have been driving that evening,” it said in an editorial. “But the hateful backlash against the Brazilians that has poured out in the last two weeks has no place in the discussion.”

When Mr Obama has finished his one-week stay, he will return to Washington to face a busy autumn agenda of health and energy reform.

Aides have made it clear that legislation to sort out the problem of 12 million illegal immigrants will have to wait until next year.