A Texas sheriff announced Monday that his office will be launching a criminal investigation into the transportation of the Venezuelan migrants flown from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard as part of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ relocation program.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said that his office has obtained information indicating that the refugees had been approached by a Venezuelan migrant who’d allegedly been paid to “recruit” the others outside a Migrant Resource Center in San Antonio. He said the migrants were “lured under false pretenses” into a short hotel stay and subsequent flights, eventually arriving on Martha’s Vineyard on Wednesday, Sept. 14.
“[The migrants] were promised work [and] the solution to several other problems,” Salazar said, “for little more than a photo-op,” —referring to the video footage ordered by Gov. DeSantis and given exclusively to Fox News. He called it a stunt that is nothing more than “political posturing,” for “the sake of political theater.”
Salazar said the unexpected flight left the 48 migrants “unceremoniously stranded” as a result of being “preyed upon,” as they were promised a life with opportunities exceeding that of their current situations.
The 49 Venezuelan migrants were in Texas legally, Salazar emphasized, and “had every right to be where they [were].”
Salazar said he’s been in communication with non governmental organizations, immigration attorneys, and both local and national media outlets, in the investigative process. He said his office is prioritizing how to move forward, and to determine “what charges, if any, are going to apply and to whom.”
Persons of interest in the case, although not directly named by Salazar, are indicated to include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who claimed responsibility for the flights Wednesday evening, following the migrants’ arrival on the Island, and associated entities and individuals, such as the woman — whom many of the refugees recall as “Perla” — who enticed the group to board the Vineyard bound flights allegedly with the promise of jobs and housing.
On Tuesday, Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a class action lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Boston, on behalf of the migrants transported to the Vineyard and Chicago-based organization Alianza Americas, claiming the actions of DeSantis and associated parties have violated the due process clause of the 14th amendment; deeming the stunt “extreme and outrageous, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”
The suit accuses DeSantis, Secretary of the Florida Transportation Department of Transportation Jared Perdue, and the State of Florida, of “taking advantage of vulnerable immigrants, inducing them to travel under false pretenses, and abandoning them without resources, targeting them for disparate treatment based on their race, national origin, and alienage, and using them as political props.”
The complaint argues that the individuals represented in the class action suit were “induced” by DeSantis and others, to “travel across state lines by fraud and misrepresentation,” resulting in severe emotional distress.
Additionally, the promises of jobs and housing initially made by “Perla,” — allegedly by direction of the accused Florida officials — proves DeSantis and associated parties “had no intention of providing such benefits.”
The lawsuit argues that the funds used to transport the group – $12 million – were originally allocated toward COVID-19 relief via American Rescue Plan Act 2021 (ARPA), and therefore the use of said funds for DeSantis’ “relocation program” was unauthorized and illegal.
In public comments, DeSantis said the migrants went voluntarily on the planes.
That prompted this response from Rachel Self, an immigration attorney who has been working with the migrants. “In response to the class action lawsuit we filed today, the governor is saying our clients consented and is producing yet another cartoonish document. My response is this: “The form may be titled “OFFICIAL CONSENT TO TRANSPORT.” But, obviously, saying something doesn’t make it so. Slapping a “fat free” label on a pound of butter won’t make it fat free, and snake oil doesn’t make your hair grow back. The truth is in the contents. And nothing contained in this form, even if every migrant signed it fully understanding the Spanish text, makes it a consent to be flown to Martha’s Vineyard if they were told they were going somewhere else,” Self wrote in a text message. “The entire English text has not even been translated into Spanish. We all know what consent means in our daily lives. If someone asks if they can have a bite of your sandwich, you can say yes. If they then eat your entire sandwich – that is not what you consented to. Considering all the castles in the sky the migrants were sold before they boarded the plane – free housing, work authorization, jobs, – it wouldn’t be a consent even if every single one of them were fluent in English, too.”
As for the criminal investigation, Salazar said his office cannot determine the existing statutes, if any, that may have been violated, but vehemently stated that “what was done to these folks is wrong. . . From a human rights perspective.”
In response to an inquiry by The Times regarding whether United States Attorney Rachel Rollins will consider opening a criminal investigation, a spokesperson wrote in an email, “the USAO does not have any comment.”
Rollins was quoted in a Boston Globe editorial stating that she is considering all options when it comes to a possible criminal investigation.
Kristen Setera from the Office of Public Affairs at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Boston Division told The Times that in keeping with DOJ policy, the FBI cannot confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.
Meanwhile, immigration and civil rights attorneys have called on the U.S. Department of Justice and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey to investigate potential crimes.
A spokesperson for Attorney General Maura Healey, Chloe Gotsis, told The Times in an email: “Our office continues to review all information relevant to this situation. We are in touch with our federal and state partners, along with attorneys representing the migrants, as we gather facts and evaluate all legal options.”