An attorney who specializes in immigration law says what happened to the 50 people brought to Martha’s Vineyard may be considered kidnapping.
Rachel Self, an Island attorney, issued a statement saying that she is looking at potential legal avenues after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis took credit for sending the 50 people to Martha’s Vineyard on two planes.
“The response to this crisis among the legal and humanitarian communities, and the Martha’s Vineyard community at large, has been nothing short of incredible,” Self wrote. “The people who arrived last night are not alone, and we will make sure they know it – this is what our community is all about. We welcome them, and we are deeply grateful for the opportunity to help them in any way we can.”
Self said she will pursue all legal remedies. “We believe they are victims of kidnapping, and the perpetrators of this breathtakingly cruel political stunt should know that it may well result in every individual who was induced onto those planes by fraud becoming eligible for a U visa. A U visa is a nonimmigrant visa granted to victims who cooperate with law enforcement, prosecutors, or other authorities in the investigation of a crime, and in the First Circuit (the Federal jurisdiction which includes Massachusetts), people with pending U visas are protected from deportation,” Self wrote. “We call on federal, state, and local authorities to collect and preserve evidence, beginning with the tail numbers of the aircraft used in the commission of this offense. Using human beings – families and children – as political pawns says far more about Governor DeSantis’s callousness and disregard for human life than it does about the people of Martha’s Vineyard. He sent those planes here hoping to expose hypocrisy; he does not believe anyone when they say they care about people like migrants fleeing an oppressive socialist regime in Venezuela, because he himself cannot conceive of caring about them. He’s made it perfectly clear he views them as subhuman. He has revealed nothing but his own heartlessness – and the truth that the people of Martha’s Vineyard are as good as it gets and better embody the moral values he purports to have.”
On Thursday night, Self and other immigration attorneys from Lawyers for Civil Rights met with reporters after speaking with some of the migrants a little after 7 pm. According to Lawyers for Civil Rights staff attorney Miriam Albert, they met with nearly all of the migrants in collaboration with pro bono attorneys “who have rapidly mobilized to provide free legal support.”
“We have seen family and children who have lived through a harrowing experience and today we are providing them with an overview of what they could expect as they go through the immigration process,” Albert said. The next steps are connecting migrants with attorneys to provide them “ongoing legal representation.” Albert said all civil and criminal legal options will be explored to “hold the perpetrators accountable and to prevent this injustice from repeating itself.”
“We are keeping all options on the table and we certainly want to make sure what happened here does not repeat again,” Lawyers for Civil Rights executive director Iván Espinoza-Madrigal said. “No one should be transported across the country without knowing exactly how they’re going to be received, where they’re going to be received. They are blessed to have landed in a place that is incredibly welcoming and warm, and they are extremely grateful to have the support. But, things could have gone very differently. This is a human rights violation, this is a constitutional violation, and we will hold the states and perpetrators accountable to the fullest extent of the law. This will not go unanswered.”
During the question and answer session, Self said the migrants have a kind, grateful demeanor and “they just want to do everything right.”
“Their biggest concern today is that many of them have dates to appear in San Antonio Monday morning. Tacoma, Washington Monday morning. Washington, D.C. Monday morning,” she said. “Their biggest concern is compliance.”
Self also held up maps that vaguely showed the migrants where they were being taken on the planes. One map showed the entire United States with a straight line from Texas to Massachusetts. The other showed a map of Martha’s Vineyard and said “you are here” and “welcome to Massachusetts.”
When a reporter brought up the point that these maps show the migrants were notified where they were headed, Self replied, “you tell me how they know where this is. Really. Have you ever heard the tourists who say ‘I’m going to the Cape and Islands this summer’ and they spell it Capon? Many people don’t know where they are right now, but we’re going to make sure they know where they are and they absolutely know there’s community here, they absolutely know they’re not alone, and we’re going to make sure they are able to comply and do everything right because that’s all they’re trying to do.”
Self said this is a “minute by minute” situation, but at this point the situation is not a crisis and is under control. She also gave a shout-out to Trader Fred’s in Edgartown for donating underwear.
There were some answers Self did not have available, such as whether the agencies she mentioned were collaborating with the perpetrators, who was exactly to blame, or whether more migrants will arrive.
State Sen.Julian Cyr, D-Truro, arrived at St. Andrew’s Church Thursday evening just before 6 pm and said “human trafficking” or “other crimes” were at play in how the migrants were treated and brought to the Vineyard.
Self told The Times in a text message Thursday night that opportunity and reward was somehow falsely pitched to the migrants.
“Accounts from the migrants who arrived last night make it clear that they were lied to again and again and fraudulently induced to board the planes,” Self wrote. “They were told there was a ‘surprise present’ for them, and that there would be jobs and housing awaiting them when they arrived. This was, obviously a sadistic lie — not only did those responsible for this stunt know that there was no housing and no employment awaiting the migrants, they also very intentionally chose not to call ahead, to any single office or authority on Martha’s Vineyard, so that even the most basic human needs arrangements could be made. Ensuring that no help awaited the migrants at all was the entire point.”
Self wrote that she believed the migrants were duped in a scheme rigged in such a way they would be thrown out of the country.
“They were provided with a cartoonishly simple map of Martha’s Vineyard and the United States, and a brief brochure containing snippets from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts website—and instructions to report their change of address to USCIS when they relocated,” Self wrote. “This is especially troubling, as anyone with even the most basic understanding of immigration proceedings knows that USCIS was not the agency with whom the migrants would have to record their address, and has nothing to do with their cases in any way. It is clear this was an intentional attempt to ensure the migrants were removed in absentia when they failed to change their address with the proper agency. This was a purposeful derailment designed to prevent people from complying with federal immigration policies. This is problematic because the state should not be interfering in federal immigration policy. Before they boarded the planes, the migrants were processed by agents of the Department of Homeland Security, who listed falsified addresses on the migrants’ paperwork. Agents apparently chose random homeless shelters all across the country, from Washington State to Florida, to list the migrants’ mailing addresses, even when told by the migrants that they had no address in the U.S. According to the paperwork provided to them, the migrants are required to check in with the ICE office nearest the fake address chosen for them by DHS, or be permanently removed—with some required to check in as soon as this coming Monday. It couldn’t be clearer that this is an attempt to ensure that these people are ordered removed, even if they can comply with the instructions provided to them. There is no other reason to list as someone’s mailing address a homeless shelter in Tacoma, WA and then ship them to Massachusetts. It is sickeningly cruel.”
Self described the migrants’ treatment as “inhuman” and pledged they will be supported on the Vineyard.
“Throwing obstacles in the way of people fleeing violence and oppression, some of whom walked through ten countries in hope of finding safety, is shameful and inhuman,” Self wrote. “Many of these victims are deprived of medical care despite clear existing injuries. These people are human beings who were deprived of basic human rights. To the people who find themselves plane wrecked on our Island, I have a message for you. You are not alone. We have your backs. We got you. If the intention of those who perpetrated this horrendous act was to create a crisis, they have failed.”
Self repeated her points during her comments Thursday night.
She’s not alone. Jules Bernstein, a Chilmark attorney who has argued labor law before the U.S. Supreme Court, also called the actions by DeSantis potentially criminal in a letter to The Times citing a federal law that makes it illegal for anyone who “transports, or moves or attempts to transport or move such alien within the United States by means of transportation or otherwise.”
Edgartown Police Chief Bruce McNamee and Oak Bluffs Police Chief Jonathan Searle told The Times there is no active local criminal investigation and they doubt that it’s in their jurisdiction. Island emergency personnel have been concentrating on getting the individuals what they need, McNamee said.
Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe questioned whether there was anything criminal.
“We prosecute, in the DA’s office, criminal activity. If somebody alleges that a crime has been committed, and there is probable cause to believe it, the police would take action by way of conducting an investigation. And then present the matter to the DA’s office if they were concerned about whether they had enough to proceed criminally.”
In response to Self’s allegation that crimes have been committed, including kidnapping, O’Keefe questioned, “what evidence does this attorney have?’”
When asked by The Times if the individuals on the plane, having been transported to a location unbeknownst to them, would be deemed criminal, O’Keefe asked if those complaints have been filed with local law enforcement. He said it would be up to the towns — and sheriff — to “amass any evidence.”
O’Keefe said criminal charges could potentially be pursued “If [local law enforcement] amassed any evidence that would show somebody was kidnapped or be brought to a place to be put into some kind of slavery or somethign of that nature.” He said “in order for there to be any consequence from that, there’d have to be an investigation by the police, and the amassing of some evidence.”
O’Keefe said he has not heard any suggestion that a crime has been committed, “or that [the migrants] are fearful.”
U.S. Rep. Bill Keating D-Bourne, who is a former Norfolk County DA, told The Times Thursday afternoon he couldn’t recall any criminal statute that would apply to the migrant’s plight. “I’m curious as to why everyone aboard thought they were going to Boston,” Keating said, “and all of a sudden it was diverted to the Vineyard. So I think it would be interesting to find out how that occurred or if that was the destination in the first place … beyond that I don’t think it’s a crime.”
Nonetheless, Keating deemed what the migrants have been subjected to as repugnant. Keating went on to say the migrants “were told they would have jobs and housing” and were led to “a vacant parking lot near Community Services.”
Keating said the migrants “were very anxious to leave” from what he’s learned has become a “crowded” situation.
“They thought they were heading to Boston,” he said. Some of those people, he said, “had other connections planned from Boston.”
In response to comments that Martha’s Vineyard does not have an existing infrastructure or plan to handle a situation such as this, and is not set up in a way that allows the Island to be prepared for an influx of migrants, O’Keefe responded, “and Arizona and New Mexico are?”
“My respectful suggestion would be to talk to the police and see whether or not they are conducting an investigation with respect to whether there’s a violation to a Massachusetts statute here.”
O’Keefe said he has not been engaged by any entities regarding the unfolding situation prior to speaking with The Times.
When The Times asked on Thursday night whether Self had any comment about O’Keefe’s reluctance to call the migrants’ situation a kidnapping, she said, “I think he might not be familiar with the federal statutes that are available to these people.”
U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins told The Boston Globe editorial board that “nothing is off the table.” According to the Globe, Rollins plans to speak with colleagues in other jurisdictions “looking for a uniform response.”
Just before the buses left Friday morning from Edgartown, Domingo Garcia, president of the League of Latin American Citizens, spoke to reporters. “These are human beings,” he said. “They’re just being treated like disposable human beings for political purposes.”
The migrants were lured with promises of jobs and housing, he said. “We’re filing a complaint with the Department of Justice asking them to review possible charges and civil rights violations,” Garcia said. A letter has been sent to the U.S. Attorney General asking for an investigation into the tactics being used by DeSantis and Governor Greg Abbott of Texas. “Some of the immigrants told me they were promised they were going to get three months of work. They were going to get free housing and free transportation and it was all a terrible lie.”
Reporters Abigail Rosen and Rich Saltzberg contributed to this report.