A Texas sheriff said Monday he was opening a criminal investigation into Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ migrant flight to Martha’s Vineyard as the stunt continues to draw criticism from Democrats and even some Republicans and DeSantis defends what he calls a protest against border policies.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar announced the investigation Monday night, saying his office believes the migrants who were transported to Massachusetts Island on September 14 were lured under false pretences, which DeSantis deny.
“What infuriates me the most about this case is that here we have 48 people who are already going through difficult times, right?” Salazar said at a press conference. “They are here legally, in our country. At this point, they have every right to be where they are. And I believe they have been preyed upon.”
Immigration attorneys working with some of the asylum seekers told ABC News that the migrants were given misleading information, including pamphlets, about the benefits they could receive in Massachusetts.
The governor defended the landing of migrants as a protest against President Joe Biden’s immigration policies as border encounters remain at an all-time high. DeSantis has repeatedly insisted that the migrants volunteered to be taken to Martha’s Vineyard from Texas.
“Why wouldn’t they want to go, given where they were?” he said during an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show on Monday night. “They were in very, very poor condition.”
What potential violations are being investigated?
Salazar said on Monday his office believed a Venezuelan migrant received a “bird dog tax” to lure about 50 migrants to take to Martha’s Vineyard, where they would be promised work and a better life.
“There’s a good chance the laws were broken here in the state of Texas in Bexar County,” Salazar said.
But he declined to reveal any specific laws he believes may have been violated at the federal, state or local level.
He also did not identify any suspects.
“We have the names of certain suspects involved who we believe are persons of interest in this case at this stage, but I will not release those names,” he said. “To be fair, I think everyone on this call already knows who those names are, but suffice it to say we’re going to open this case.”
“We will find out to what extent the law can hold these people accountable,” he added.
Lawyers say DeSantis brochures were misleading
Lawyers representing the migrants airlifted to Martha’s Vineyard told ABC News that the information they were given before the trip was misleading because the migrants are technically not refugees. These people are applying for asylum but have not yet been granted this status, the lawyers said.
Millions of Venezuelans have fled the country since 2014, hoping to escape political unrest and economic strife. US relations are strained with the country – which has for years been under punitive US sanctions imposed on the country’s president – and Venezuelans are generally exempt from prompt deportation under Title 42, a policy of the Trump era used to quickly deport migrants because of the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ivan Espinoza-Marigal, a leading lawyer representing many migrants, told ABC that most migrants are currently on humanitarian parole and therefore are not eligible for the benefits outlined in the pamphlet they received. .
“Only people who have already been granted refugee status are eligible,” US Immigration Council policy director Aaron Reichlin-Melnick told ABC News. “Asylum seekers receive no federal assistance and cannot receive work authorization until at least six months after applying for asylum.”
DeSantis pointed to pamphlets distributed by a vendor working with the state of Florida to transport migrants as proof that they weren’t fooled about where they were going or what would be available to them once they arrived.
“They all signed consent forms to go,” he told Hannity. “And then the vendor who does this for Florida gave them a package that had a map of Martha’s Vineyard, there were numbers for different services on Martha’s Vineyard, and then there were numbers for all of the agencies in Massachusetts that deal with immigration and refugees.”
Rachel Self, an immigration lawyer who helps migrants arriving at Martha’s Vineyard, said the map on the brochures was “caricaturally simple” and contained information on how migrants could change their address with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) when they moved.
“It is all the more disturbing that anyone with the most basic understanding of immigration procedure knows that USCIS was not the agency with which migrants were required to register their addresses and in no way case to do with their case,” Self said.
As a rule, migrants on humanitarian parole seeking to file an asylum claim have mandatory hearings scheduled in places where they say they have family or in the courts closest to where they have been processed by the immigration authorities. This means that migrants who unknowingly or under false pretences travel to Martha’s Vineyard risk missing those court dates, which may result in their expedited deportation.
“The pamphlet is full of lies for this particular group of people. Material misrepresentations made as part of the illegal scheme,” Self, one of the attorneys, told ABC News.
What the DeSantis team says
Taryn Fenske, director of communications for DeSantis, responded to the Bexar Sheriff’s Office investigation in a social media post Monday.
“Immigrants are more than willing to leave Bexar County after being enticed to cross the border and fend for themselves.” [Florida] provided an opportunity in a sanctuary state [with] resources, as expected – unlike the 53 deaths in an abandoned truck in Bexar County in June,” Fenske wrote on Twitter.
DeSantis during his appearance on Hannity called the accusations that the migrants were cheated “nonsense.”
He has promised additional operations to send migrants to “sanctuary jurisdictions”, saying last week that he intended to use $12 million from the state’s relocation program for more transports.
“These migrants were being treated horribly by Biden. They were hungry, homeless, they had no opportunity. The State of Florida – it was voluntary – offered transportation to sanctuary jurisdictions,” DeSantis said during the a press conference on Tuesday as he doubled down on his comments made to Hannity.
— ABC News’ Miles Cohen, Sarah Beth Guevara and Quinn Owen contributed to this report.