Congress members call for DOJ investigation

Florida Democrat sues; former federal prosecutor says kidnapping is a possible charge.

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Former federal prosecutor Bianca Forde says she sees kidnapping for those responsible for transporting migrants to Martha's Vineyard. — Courtesy Bianca Forde

Just two days after Island representatives called for a federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, a letter signed by 46 United States representatives also calls for a DOJ investigation into the Sept. 14 transport of nearly 50 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken credit for relocating the migrants and refugees from San Antonio, Texas, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has applauded the effort.
The letter was sent to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, according to a press release issued Friday. 

Led by Gerry Connolly (D-VA), Sylvia Garcia (D-TX), Ted Lieu (D-CA), and Mondaire Jones (D-NY), the letter refers to the investigation opened by the Bexar County Sheriff’s office and urges the DOJ to follow suit with a “thorough investigation,” with the aim of “deliver[ing] accountability to those that violated the law.”

“Our nation has a long tradition of welcoming migrants fleeing persecution and conflict,” the letter states. The migrants, lured onto planes and flown to Martha’s Vineyard, were in Texas after “fleeing communism, authoritarianism, and violence, having crossed 10 countries and walked thousands of miles in search of a dignified life for them and their families. . . These individuals become essential pillars to our economy, diversity, and culture.”

The letter describes the actions of Texas and Florida officials — and associated parties — “fundamentally cruel,” and “uniquely un-American,” and calls for an investigation into whether federal funds were used for the “fraudulent scheme,” which would be violating federal law.

While four Massachusetts representatives co-signed — Lori Trahan (MA-3), James McGovern (MA-2), Katherine Clark (MA-5), Jake Auchincloss (MA-4) — U.S. Rep. Willian Keating, who represents the Island, is not listed. 

In a Tweet showing her support for the letter, Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree wrote: “Migrants are not political pawns. DOJ must investigate the cruel GOP-led stunt on Martha’s Vineyard last week.”

Meanwhile, a former federal prosecutor, told The Times she believes it would be simple for the DOJ to launch an investigation.

“I know the DOJ has been asked to look into this and it’s really easy at this stage,” said Biance Forde, who served as a prosecutor for 5½ years and is now a global compliance and ethics executive. “To open a grand jury investigation takes a piece of paper and the assignment of a grand jury. From that stage the grand jury would begin investigating, which would include serving subpoenas and the execution of warrants based on probable cause.”

She said what individuals would be charged with is more complicated.

“When you think about what charges are possible from a federal prosecutor’s standpoint, there are a lot of them floating out there. You have potential human trafficking, but you have to think about there’s no real forced labor or commercial sex trafficking at issue here,” Forde said. “There’s been talk about the smuggling statute but it would be difficult to show that the transporting of these individuals furthered any violation of law. Usually on the federal level when there is fraud you are required to show that the scheme was devised to obtain money or property or some sort of commercial benefit.”

More likely, Forde said, is a kidnapping charge.

Migrants have told attorneys and reporters that they were deceived by a woman named “Perla” and coerced into taking the flights with the promise of jobs and housing, as well as an easier immigration path.

“Kidnapping doesn’t require a commercial benefit like the fraud statute. It allows kidnapping to be brought if some is held for ransom, reward or otherwise. Here, we’re clearly in the territory of otherwise, where there’s a clear sort of political benefit at play,” Forde said. “Then you have to ask when you look at the atmospherics: Do we really see any U.S. Attorney’s office that has jurisdiction over this matter bringing a federal case against Abbott or DeSantis for federal kidnapping? I don’t know. I would be surprised if I saw that come across the news.”

DeSantis has said publicly that the migrants signed documents authorizing their transport. 

“Whether or not there was consent is going to come up and it’s going to have to be an issue of was that consent informed,” Forde said. “We’ve already seen some discussion of that when the DeSantis camp said that these consent forms were in multiple languages. That will be part of their defense I’m sure. There will be also defense that these individuals were acting in some official capacity — a question of whether they had authority under their current post to transport migrants. Migrant transport is typically under the authority of federal immigration officials. They will raise some sort of immunity defense based on their current post. There’s going to be a lot of questions about whether or not they’re entitled to that immunity and whether this was within their gamut as governors.”

Forde noted the similarities in what DeSantis and Abbott are doing with the segregationists of the 1960s. “In the 1960s white southerners wanted Blacks out of the south and they would transport on buses hundreds of Blacks at a time to places like New York, and Chicago, and to Philly under promises of work and a better life,” she said. “One family, for instance, was dropped off in front of the Kennedy home [in Hyannis] Like we saw here with Vice President Kamala Harris,” Forde said. “So this isn’t new. It really is just a brazen disregard for the humanity of the people involved to just use human beings as a political ploy in this way and that’s what makes this so despicable.”

Earlier this week, 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. The suit deems the stunt “extreme and outrageous, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”

After recently commenting that an official complaint against DeSantis following his alleged misuse of funds is “imminent,” Florida Sen. Jason Pizzo (D) filed a lawsuit Thursday evening, with the aim of blocking similar transports in the future. 

The lawsuit claims that the money allocated toward DeSantis’ touted relocation program — $12 million — violates budgetary state laws, a spokesperson for Sen. Pizzo’s office.

The suit argues that Florida has already spent upwards of $1.5 million to arrange the first flights of the program, in payment to the vendor that assisted in the scheme. $615,000 of which went to the transporting of the group of migrants dropped off at Martha’s Vineyard Airport. 

A spokesperson for Pizzo told The Times that the senator seeks “to stop the taxpayer dollars being wasted and spent where they shouldn’t be.”

 

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