Sheriff investigates DeSantis’ migrant flight as attorneys sue, claiming trip was manipulative

A Texas sheriff said Monday he was launching a criminal investigation into Florida Gov.’s Ron DeSantis’ migrant flight to Martha’s Vineyard as the stunt continues to draw criticism from Democrats and even some Republicans and DeSantis. He also defends what he calls opposition to border policies.

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar announced the investigation on Monday night, saying his office believes the migrants deported to the Massachusetts island on September 14 were seduced under false pretenses, which DeSantis denies. .

“What bothers me the most about this case is that here we have 48 people who are already in tough times, right?” Salazar said at a news conference. “They are here legally, in our country. At that point, they have every right to be where they are. And I believe they were hunted.”

Immigration lawyers working with some refugees told ABC News that migrants were given misleading information, including brochures, about the benefits they receive in Massachusetts.

A civil rights group representing at least three of the affected immigrants filed a class-action lawsuit Tuesday against DeSantis and other Florida officials, claiming their clients were part of a “political stunt.” As was lured under false pretense.

The governor has defended migrant drop-offs as a protest against President Joe Biden’s immigration policies as border encounters hit record highs. DeSantis has repeatedly insisted on voluntarily moving migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.

“Why wouldn’t they want to go to where they were?” He said Monday night during an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show. “They were in really, really bad shape.”

What potential violations are being investigated?

Salazar said on Monday that his office believed a “bird-dog fee” was paid to entice about 50 migrants to take a Venezuelan migrant to Martha’s Vineyard, where they were found. Work and a better life will be promised.

“There is a high probability that laws were broken in Bexar County in the state of Texas,” Salazar said.

But he declined to reveal any specific statutes he thinks might be violated at the federal, state or local level.

Migrants stand outside St. Andrew’s Church on September 14, 2022 in Edgartown, Massachusetts.

Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette via Reuters

He did not even identify any suspects.

“We have the names of some of the suspects involved who we believe are persons of interest in this case at this time, but I will not divulge those names,” he said. “To be fair, I think everyone on this call knows who those names are already, but suffice it to say that we will keep the matter open.”

“We are going to find out to what extent the law can hold these people accountable,” he said.

During an interview on ABC News Live Prime on Tuesday, Salazar told Lynsey Davis that there is at least one person of interest in his office who is identified by the names and photos of other people he is working to identify. .

They said they are also communicating with lawyers representing some of the refugees to find potential victims and witnesses.

“If we are able to prove that they were taken from here on false pretenses, it could amount to criminal conduct and would be dealt with accordingly,” Salazar said.

Lawyers say DeSantis brochures were misleading

Lawyers representing the migrants, who flew into Martha’s Vineyard via two chartered planes, told ABC News that information given to them prior to the trip was misleading because migrants are not technically refugees. Lawyers said that these people are seeking asylum but have not yet achieved that status.

Millions of Venezuelans have fled the country since 2014, hoping to escape political turmoil and economic strife. US relations are strained with the country – which for years has been punishing US sanctions imposed in opposition to the country’s president – and Venezuela is usually exempt from being quickly expelled under Title 42, a Trump-era policy that is used to expel migrants quickly because of the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ivan Espinoza-Marrigal, a leading attorney representing many migrants, told ABC that the current status of most migrants is under humanitarian parole and therefore not eligible for the benefits described in the pamphlet they received.

“Only people who have already been granted refugee status are eligible,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director for the American Immigration Council, told ABC News. “Asylum seekers receive no federal aid and may not receive work authorization until at least six months after applying for asylum.”

DeSantis pointed to brochures that were provided to transport migrants by a vendor working with the state of Florida as evidence that they had not been deceived about where they were going or their What will be available to them after their arrival?

“They all signed consent forms to leave,” he told Hannity. “And then the salesperson doing this for Florida provided them with a packet that had a map of Martha’s Vineyards, it had numbers for various services on Martha’s Vineyards and then numbers for the overall agencies in Massachusetts that handle immigration and refugees. “

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks after the midterm primary election "Keep Florida Free Tour, " In Tampa, Fla., August 24, 2022.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during the “Keep Florida Free Tour” after the midterm election, in Tampa, Fla., Aug. 24, 2022.

Octavio Jones/Reuters, FILE

Rachel Self, an immigration attorney who helps immigrants arriving at Martha’s Vineyard, said the map on the brochure was “cartoonically simple” and contained information on how migrants could change their address with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). when they have moved.

“This is particularly troubling because anyone with the most basic understanding of immigration proceedings knows that USCIS was not the agency with which migrants would register their addresses and had nothing to do with their affairs in any way. No,” said Self.

Typically, migrants are granted humanitarian parole and mandatory court hearings to file an asylum claim are scheduled in places where they have said they have family or courts closest to where they have been processed by immigration officials. was. This means that migrants who visited Martha’s Vineyard unintentionally or under false pretense are at risk of missing those court dates, which could result in them being fast-tracked to deportation.

“The brochure for this particular group of people is full of lies. Misrepresentation of material in furtherance of the illegal plan,” himself, one of the attorneys, told ABC News.

Class-action lawsuit filed against DeSantis

The group Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) filed a federal civil rights class action lawsuit Tuesday against DeSantis, Florida Secretary of Transportation Jared Perdue “and his associates” who lawyers called “fraudulent” to send migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. and discriminatory” scheme. without suitable resources.

The group sued on behalf of at least three affected people, who they claim were “targeted and induced” to board the planes under false pretenses. He alleged in the lawsuit that DeSantis and others focused on migrants who had been released from shelters and promised them job opportunities, schooling for their children, and immigration assistance.

Lawyers said in the lawsuit that the migrants were not told they were going to Martha’s Vineyard until just before landing. The lawsuit claims that once the plane landed, the people who did the work “disappeared” the migrants leaving them feeling like it was all a hoax.

“The defendants molested them, stripped them of their dignity, deprived them of their liberty, bodily autonomy, due process and equal protections under the law, and in furtherance of an unlawful goal and personal political commitment to the federal government.” unreasonably interfered with exclusive control agendas,” the group said.

The complaint also alleges that funds spent to transport plaintiffs were improperly used from the federal Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund, which is authorized only for COVID-19-related uses.

The LCR is seeking “compensatory, emotional distress and punitive damages”.

ABC News has contacted DeSantis’ office and the Florida Department of Transportation for comment on the lawsuit.

What the DeSantis team is saying

DeSantis communications director Taryn Fenske responded to an investigation by the Bexar Sheriff’s Office in a social media post on Monday.

“Immigrants willing to leave Bexar County after being tempted to cross the border and ‘fend for themselves. [Florida] Provided an opportunity in a sanctuary state [with] Resources, as expected – in contrast to the 53 people killed in an abandoned truck in Bexar County in June,” Fenske wrote on Twitter.

DeSantis during his appearance on Hannity called the allegations that the migrants were duped “bullshit.”

He has promised additional operations to send migrants to so-called “sanctuary jurisdictions”, saying last week that he intends to use $12 million from the state’s relocation program for more transportation.

“Those migrants were being treated very badly by Biden. They were hungry, homeless, they had no opportunity. The state of Florida — it was volunteers — offered transportation within the sanctuary’s jurisdiction,” DeSantis said. said in a press conference on Tuesday. He reiterated his comments to Hannity.

weight of MPs

Members of the Congressional leadership participated in an ongoing discourse Tuesday about DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last week took steps to send migrants to different cities in the US.

House Democratic Caucus Speaker Hakeem Jeffries lambasted both men during a news conference at the Capitol on Tuesday, arguing that GOP governors need to “stop behaving like human traffickers.” (Abbott and DeSantis have defended their actions by showing the cost and scope of care for migrants in response to the border policies of Biden and Democrats.)

But Jeffries said, “they’re putting politics on the people in the tiniest way possible.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed support for the Republican’s actions, saying he “thought it was a good idea” to send immigrants to blue states.

Although not by name, McConnell defended DeSantis and Abbott by saying on the Senate floor that they were only giving Biden and Democrats “a small, small taste” of what border-state governors have been grappling with for years.

White House press secretary Carine Jean-Pierre balked at the idea that GOP leaders were involving non-border states in sharing the burden of immigration.

“So that’s the way we see it — alerting Fox News, not city or state officials to plans to release children fleeing communism by the side of the road,” Jean-Pierre told reporters during Tuesday’s briefing. Providing information is not a burden.” “This is not the definition we see of burden sharing. It is a brutal, pre-planned political stunt.”

ABC News’ Miles Cohen, Abby Cruz, Sarah Beth Guevara, Isabella Murray and Quinn Owen contributed to this report.

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