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As officials scramble to aid migrants, Democrats question whether DeSantis’ move was illegal

Martha’s Vineyard responds to surprise arrival of planeloads of migrants

Massachusetts officials began searching Thursday for longer-term housing and legal aid for dozens of Venezuelan migrants who were flown unannounced to Martha’s Vineyard this week, while immigration lawyers and Democratic politicians called for an investigation into whether their abrupt relocation to the island was illegal.

Governor Charlie Baker said the state is exploring using Joint Base Cape Cod for temporary shelter and humanitarian services for the migrants, some of whom said they were lured by the promise of jobs and other services. The migrants said they were told they were heading to Boston in two chartered jets that originated in San Antonio, stopped in the Florida Panhandle, and then headed north.

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Massachusetts political leaders and immigrant advocates quickly assailed the move as inhumane and a political ploy by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican who is running for reelection this year and is considered a possible presidential candidate in 2024.

“I’m furious, frankly, that these people were used as political chattel to advance a presidential campaign. There’s no denying what this is,” said US Representative William Keating, a Democrat whose district includes Martha’s Vineyard.

Instead of arriving in Boston, the migrants found themselves on unfamiliar Martha’s Vineyard after being told that they would be greeted when they landed and provided with resources, according to state Representative Dylan Fernandes, a Falmouth Democrat who represents the Cape and Islands.

However, island officials said they had only 20 minutes of advance notice before the planes arrived. Some shelter was provided Wednesday evening at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown. Residents rushed to donate food, clothing, and other aid.

Martina Thornton, manager of Dukes County Emergency Management, said the migrants include a few families, but that most are men in their 20s and 30s. None of the immigrants, she said, have significant medical issues, and none speak English.

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“I thank everyone on the ground who quickly came together to provide assistance on the Vineyard,” Baker said. “The Commonwealth has many resources for assisting individuals that arrive in Massachusetts with varying immigration statuses and needs and is working with all partners involved to make sure those resources are available to the migrants.”

Immigration lawyers and other legal advocates questioned whether a crime was committed in moving the migrants, based on reports that they were lured into taking the plane trip under the pretext that their immigration paperwork would be expedited, and that they would have jobs at their destination.

Susan Church, an immigration lawyer based in Cambridge, said a legal team is working with advocacy groups to interview the migrants and determine whether they are eligible for visas for victims of crimes.

“They were duped in to getting onto the plane,” said Church, former chair of the New England Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “This is akin to kidnapping.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom on Thursday asked Attorney General Merrick Garland to open an investigation into possible criminal or civil violations of federal law “based on this alleged fraudulent scheme.”

In Boston on Thursday, US Attorney Rachael Rollins said she did not have enough information yet to know if a crime had been committed.

”We are looking into that case and will be speaking with members of the Department of Justice. Massachusetts isn’t the only place where this has happened,” Rollins said. “We have several other sister communities, whether it’s D.C., New York, California, where we’ve seen things like this. And we’re hoping to get some input from the Department of Justice about what our next steps might be, if any at all.”

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Alejandro, a migrant who spoke with the Globe, said he left Venezuela three months ago on foot and was detained by US authorities for 15 days after crossing into Texas. Later, Alejandro said, he was transferred to the migrant resource center in San Antonio.

“There, a lady offered us three months of rent, work, and said they were going to put our papers in order” in a new place, he said.

The woman took him and other migrants to a San Antonio hotel for four days, gave them meals, and appeared to prepare their paperwork, Alejandro said. Then, Alejandro said, he and other migrants were put on a plane and flown to Martha’s Vineyard.

A national GOP push to send migrants to blue states was on the party’s radar last year, when Texas Senator Ted Cruz touted his “Stop the Surge Act” to establish new ports of entry in deeply Democratic parts of New England. The act has not passed.

In Florida, DeSantis took credit for the flights, and state Republican leaders enthusiastically backed the move.

“If you have folks that are inclined to think Florida’s a good place, our message to them is we are not a sanctuary state,” DeSantis said Thursday.

“It’s better to be able to go to a sanctuary jurisdiction,” he said. “And yes, we will help facilitate that transport for you to be able to go to greener pastures.”

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In a statement, a DeSantis spokeswoman said the two planes were part of the state’s $12 million “relocation program” to take undocumented migrants elsewhere. The governor’s office has not explained why DeSantis was involved in the transport of migrants from Texas to Massachusetts.

Florida state Senator Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who chairs the state Republican Party, blamed the Democrats’ immigration policy for “unleashing a devastating toll of human trafficking, drug importation, and poverty on the immigrants, and a crime and fentanyl crisis on Americans.”

“Places like Massachusetts, New York, California, and others say they want these individuals. We are seeing that appears to be empty rhetoric,” Gruters told the Globe in a text message.

In Massachusetts, however, elected officials and immigration workers said that a quick, overwhelming response to help the migrants shows a deep well of compassion instead.

“The people of Massachusetts treat all human beings with compassion and dignity, and we will do this even as the Florida governor tries to create a political side show,” Senator Elizabeth Warren said.

“Immigrants are welcome in Massachusetts, and Martha’s Vineyard residents have rallied,” added Senator Edward Markey. “Ron DeSantis could have learned a lesson on what patriotism really looks like, but he’s too busy using human beings as props in a cruel stunt to buoy his political aspirations.”

For Florida state Senator Annette Taddeo, the events felt personal. Taddeo, a Miami-Dade Democrat and onetime gubernatorial candidate who is running for Congress, fled Colombia after her father was kidnapped by rebels.

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When the $12 million relocation program made it into last year’s budget, Taddeo said, she spoke up against it during debates. The request was for $8 million, she recalled, but grew by the time the spending package went to the governor.

“I look at these kids, and some of them are very small,” she told the Globe. “I was angry and flabbergasted . . . but I wasn’t surprised. It is outrageous that they are playing with people’s feelings and pain for electoral purposes. This is red meat for a base that has gone way too far.”

After a stressful day on the Vineyard, about a dozen of the men played soccer at an elementary school under a beautiful late-summer sky — relaxing for perhaps the first time in a long time.

Tal Kopan, Emily Sweeney, and Milton Valencia of the Globe staff, and correspondents Alexander Thompson and Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com. Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @samanthajgross.