As officials in Massachusetts continue to accommodate the migrants who unexpectedly arrived last week, a sheriff in Texas has announced his office is opening a local investigation into what led to the migrants' arrival in the Bay State, and if it was legal. And on Tuesday Lawyers for Civil Rights, an organization offering free legal help to the migrants, filed a federal civil rights class action lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has claimed responsibility for sending them.
Texas Investigation Into Migrant Flights
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, whose jurisdiction includes San Antonio, says his department's understanding is that a Venezuelan migrant was paid what's known as a "bird dog fee" to recruit 50 others from the area around a local migrant resource center.
Salazar, who held a news conference Monday, said while they were staying at local shelters, the migrants were asked if they wanted work and housing, and were then "lured" into staying at a hotel, taken by plane to Florida, and eventually flown to Martha's Vineyard.
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“Somebody coming and preying upon people that are here minding their own business and are here legally, not bothering a soul, but somebody saw fit to come from another state, hunt them down, prey upon them and then take advantage of their desperate situation just for the sake of political theatre, just for the sake of making some form of a statement and putting peoples lives in danger," Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said during a Monday news conference.
Federal Class Action Lawsuit Filed
The lawsuit filed Tuesday was on behalf of the migrants who were sent to Martha's Vineyard and Alianza Americas, a network of migrant-led organizations that works with immigrants across the U.S. It names DeSantis as well as Florida's Secretary of the Department of Transportation Jared Perdue, the state of Florida itself, and the state's Department of Transportation as defendants.
The 35-page document outlines the harm lawyers say was done by enticing people with false promises to be transported under the orders of DeSantis.
"It is about all of the immigrants who could be placed in this situation," said Lawyers for Civil Rights Executive Director Ivan Espinoza Madrigal.
Espinoza Madrigal explains the class action lawsuit will help protect not just the migrants, but any other person who may have suffered a similar situation.
"It is designed to get an injunction that will block further relocation and expulsion of immigrants under false pretenses," said Espinoza Madrigal.
Desantis' office responded to the lawsuit, accusing the lawyers and activists of being "opportunistic" and using their clients for "political theater."
Helena Olea, the associate director for programs at Alianza Americas, a network of migrant-led organizations based in Chicago, and a party in the suit, argued otherwise.
"Sometimes as a victim of a violation of your rights, you understand that you have to be there and to be the face of a lawsuit so that this practice ceases and does not occur again," said Olea.
“No human being should be used as a political pawn in the nation’s highly polarized debate over immigration,” Espinoza Madrigal said.
“We want to do everything we can to prevent more abuses against newly arrived immigrants, especially asylum seekers who deserve support, protection and to be recognized for the incredible contributions they make to the U.S., as well as their loved ones in their home countries,” Oscar Chacòn, Alianza Americas’ executive director said.
In the lawsuit, it notes that the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit crossed into the U.S. and "immediately surrendered themselves to federal immigration officials, and each has — and at all times pertinent to the allegations in this Complaint has had — active federal proceedings to adjudicate their immigration status." This means they are currently authorized to remain in the country, the lawsuit said.
It goes on to say the group was vulnerable, having fled "violence, instability, insecurity, and abuse of trust by
corrupt government officials" in Venezuela and claims that the defendants exploited this, making "false promises" and "false representations" about what awaited the migrants if they got on a plane.
DeSantis' office also shared a copy of what it said is a consent form, presumably signed by one of the migrants, agreeing to be transported outside of Texas to a sanctuary state -- without mentioning Massachusetts.
"The transportation of the immigrants to Martha's Vineyard was done on a voluntary basis," a spokesperson for DeSantis said in a statement. "Florida's program gave them a fresh start in a sanctuary state and these individuals opted to take advantage of chartered flights to Massachusetts."
But lawyers representing the migrants argue that it doesn't justify what they call are deceitful practices, luring them with the promise of jobs and housing and keeping them in the dark about where they were being dropped off.
"Harm has been done and we're particularly underscoring the trauma," noted Olea. "Hurting once more the individuals that are undergoing a traumatic experience."
Massachusetts State Sen. Julian Cyr and Rep. Dylan Fernandes toured Joint Base Cape Cod, which has been outfitted as a temporary shelter, Monday morning and met with some of the migrants. They said the migrants used words like "tricked" and "kidnapping" when describing their journey to Massachusetts, and that one migrant told him he thought he was going to Washington, D.C.
Both of the lawmakers said they think Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis broke the law and called it a "political stunt" using "human beings as political pawns" — a sentiment that U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren evoked Monday as well.
"Immigrants have been more than willing to leave Bexar County after being abandoned, homeless, and 'left to fend for themselves,'" DeSantis' office said in a statement. "Florida gave them an opportunity to seek greener pastures in a sanctuary jurisdiction that offered greater resources for them, as we expected.''
Baker Calls for 'Meaningful' Immigration Reform
Meanwhile, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker continues to call for "meaningful" immigration reform, calling the current system "very screwed up." He said the Bay State does everything it can to help immigrants who come here, and said he was proud of the way people in Martha's Vineyard came together to help.
Asked about the Texas investigation on Tuesday, Baker said he's glad the sheriff chose to open an investigation.
"I think that's the right thing to do," he said.
Baker said he hasn't spoken to DeSantis about the situation, as he is more focused on making sure the state comes up with service plans and solutions for the migrants who are in Massachusetts.
"Look, everybody who pays attention to this issue knows we have a giant problem with immigration in the United States. It needs to be reformed. I've been saying this for eight years to my colleagues at the federal level," the governor said. "If anything comes of this that could possibly be positive -- and sending people, as I said before, all over the country who don't know where they are going and in some places maybe under false pretenses is just a really lousy thing to do -- what I would really like to see happen is the feds create an immigration policy that people can understand and people can enforce and people can abide by. We don't have that."
Despite the pending investigation, DeSantis did nothing to dial down his rhetoric during a press conference Tuesday.
"When Biden is flying these people all over the fruited plain in the middle of the night, I didn't hear a peep out of those people," he said. "I heard no outrage about any of that... The only thing I hear them getting upset about is you have 50 that end up in Martha's Vineyard. Then they get really upset. And I'm sorry, those migrants were being treated horribly by Biden. They were hungry, homeless, no opportunity at all. The state of Florida -- it was voluntary -- offered transport to sanctuary jurisdictions."
"What happened was they were provided an ability to be in the most posh sanctuary jurisdiction maybe in the world. Obviously, it's sad the Martha's Vineyard people deported them the next day," DeSantis added. "They could have absorbed this. They chose not to. If 50 was a burden on one of the richest places in our country, what about all these other communities that have been overrun by hundreds or thousands. Now at least we know nobody can deny there is a crisis. It's only because you had the elite who want to have the cost on everybody else and they don't want to have to shoulder that. That's the only reason people are talking about this."