SAN ANTONIO (Nexstar/Texas Tribune) — Legal backlash into how Florida transported migrants quickly followed Gov. Ron DeSantis’ announcement that the state chartered two planes to send roughly 50 immigrants from Texas to the East Coast, yet the Lone Star State hasn’t faced the same legal action since it started busing migrants.
DeSantis sent the planes to Martha’s Vineyard last Thursday, mimicking Gov. Greg Abbott’s months-long practice of busing migrants to Democrat-led cities.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, a Democrat, announced a criminal investigation into how the state of Florida got a group of migrants in San Antonio to hop on a plane that would take them to Martha’s Vineyard, an island vacation spot in Massachusetts.
“I believe that they were preyed upon. Somebody came from out of state [and] preyed upon these people, lured them with promises of a better life, which is what they’re absolutely looking for,” Salazar said during a news conference Wednesday. “To just be exploited and hoodwinked into making this trip to Florida, and then onward to Martha’s Vineyard.”
Salazar said it is too early to name suspects or say exactly what laws were broken.
The investigation comes as a group of Boston attorneys representing three of the migrants filed a lawsuit against DeSantis and the state of Florida, alleging the state “designed and executed a premeditated, fraudulent, and illegal scheme centered on exploiting this vulnerability for the sole purpose of advancing their own personal, financial and political interests,” according to the lawsuit.
“They were approached by someone who presented themselves as a benefactor, as a kindly person, as someone who wanted to help them. But that wasn’t true,” said Jacob Love, a litigation staff attorney on the case with Lawyers for Civil Rights.
The suit alleges an elaborate scheme of unidentified individuals lured migrants to travel on the planes. This included providing hotel rooms, McDonald’s gift cards, hundreds of dollars in cash and false promises of their ultimate destination. Migrants on the flight last week said a woman going by the name of Perla approached them outside San Antonio’s Migrant Resource Center and promised them jobs and shelter. Some said they were told they were going to Boston. But they arrived in Martha’s Vineyard, where local officials were caught off guard.
The suit said the unidentified individuals identified and targeted the migrants “by trolling streets outside of a migrant shelter in Texas and other similar locales, pretending to be good Samaritans offering humanitarian assistance.”
A spokesperson for DeSantis called the lawyers representing the migrants activists.
“The transportation of the immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard was done on a voluntary basis,” Taryn Fenske said in a statement. “The immigrants were homeless, hungry, and abandoned – and these activists didn’t care about them then. Florida’s program gave them a fresh start in a sanctuary state and these individuals opted to take advantage of chartered flights to Massachusetts. It was disappointing that Martha’s Vineyard called in the Massachusetts National Guard to bus them away from the island within 48 hours.”
Denise Gilman, the co-director of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, said there are certainly questions about both Texas and Florida’s efforts of transporting migrants, but Florida’s appears to be “particularly egregious.”
“All of the facts that point to deception about the location where people were going, specific materials that were falsified that were provided to the migrants about what services would be available to them in Massachusetts and other information,” she said.
Gilman said both consent forms Texas and Florida are giving the migrants are legally questionable, with Florida’s version being worse.
“There’s nothing on there about what information has been provided to them before they’ve made the decision. There’s no information about the context in which the decision was made,” she said. “That said, the form that Florida seems to be using is less complete in terms of just providing basic information even about where the transportation is going to be taking the migrants to.”
Texas’ consent forms clearly spell out which possible cities the migrants would be bused to, but Florida’s does not specify any location, nor does it indicate it is an official state document.
Despite the legal questions, Abbott’s busing program remains popular. A Texas Politics Project poll out last week shows 52% of registered voters approve of and support the initiative.
The Texas Tribune contributed to this report.