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Migrants detail ruse as lawyers, advocates explore possible criminal violations

Venezuelan migrants are transported to Cape Cod
After spending two nights in Martha's Vineyard, Venezuelan migrants are transported to Cape Cod.

SAN ANTONIO — But for his suspicion of the tall blond woman offering a free trip to Massachusetts and a guarantee of work, Eduardo Linares could have become another unwitting player in Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ stunning decision to fly migrants to Massachusetts without notice.

The woman who called herself “Perla” approached Linares, a Venezuelan migrant, and others in a McDonald’s parking lot here recently, delivering her pitch in broken Spanish, according to the Texas Tribune, which collaborated with the Globe for this report. Many of the migrants were scraping by, waiting for their immigration cases to wind through the courts. Still, the offer seemed too good to be true, Linares said.

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“I told her I had to think about it, because I didn’t even know where she was sending me,” Linares told the Tribune. Eventually, he turned her down.

“I saw her like the other ‘helpers’ that say they’re going to help, but they’re lies,” he said.

Echoes of that account have sounded in dozens of interviews immigration attorneys have conducted with the migrants who arrived unannounced this week on Martha’s Vineyard, sent by private plane from Texas to Florida and finally to Massachusetts.

Venezuelan migrants speak with volunteers outside of St. Andrew's Parish House in Martha’s Vineyard on Friday.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

DeSantis, a Republican and possible 2024 presidential candidate, has taken responsibility for the move. On Friday, he said the state’s contractor went to Texas to try to identify people “that are trying to come to Florida, and then offering them free transportation to sanctuary jurisdictions.”

Immigration attorneys are pressing federal and state authorities to launch criminal investigations into the scheme.

“What happened to our clients is akin to human trafficking, false imprisonment, or kidnapping,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based organization whose attorneys have spoken with many of the migrants. “Those are all the types of crimes that federal and state law-enforcement authorities must investigate.”

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According to Sellstrom, the migrants consistently report they were induced to board the planes in San Antonio with false promises of work in Boston, educational opportunities, and help with immigration paperwork. They initially believed they were heading to Boston, he said, and were told only in midflight that their destination would be the Vineyard, an island that many of them had never heard of.

Other migrants besides Linares have said they were approached by Perla.

Migrants sit and wait around the City of San Antonio Migrant Resource Center on Friday.Chris Stokes/ Texas Tribune

The Globe this week interviewed a migrant named Alejandro, who said that “Mrs. Perla” offered him “three months of rent, work, and said they were going to put our papers in order.” She took him and other migrants to a San Antonio hotel for four days, gave them meals, and appeared to prepare their paperwork, Alejandro said. Afterward, he and other migrants were put on a plane and flown to Martha’s Vineyard.

On Friday, a second publication in Texas, the San Antonio Report, interviewed a 27-year-old Venezuelan migrant named Emmanuel who said a woman named “Perla” paid him $200 to recruit others to board the flights.

Emmanuel said he gave her contact information for about 10 migrants, who were told the woman wanted to send them to “sanctuary states” with more resources.

Sellstrom said he does not know whether the people who allegedly induced the migrants were connected with DeSantis or Texas Governor Greg Abbott, another Republican who has assailed President Biden’s border policy.

San Antonio officials and immigration advocates were caught off-guard by DeSantis’ move. María Villagómez, San Antonio’s deputy city manager, said city officials were “not aware or involved with the reported flight.”

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“It’s incredibly inhumane and insensitive,” added City Council member Mario Bravo. “And it tells you a lot about the true character of the people who are doing this.”

Venezuelan migrants gather at the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal in Martha’s Vineyard on Friday.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Roughly 150 miles from Mexico, San Antonio historically has welcomed migrants. Even so, the city has struggled to accommodate the numbers lately, an average of about 600 people each day, most of them in need of a roof over their heads.

DeSantis has defended the flights to Martha’s Vineyard as a necessary security measure. A spokeswoman for DeSantis has said that the flights were part of a $12 million state program to take migrants elsewhere. The program attempts to head off their arrival by identifying Florida-bound migrants in Texas beforehand, said Taryn Fenske, the spokeswoman.

“Law enforcement officials at the southern border report that as many as 40 percent of individuals crossing the border express a desire to reach Florida,” Fenske said.

To preempt that journey, she said, Florida authorities seek “to identify illegal immigrants at the southern border who have been processed by the feds and connect them with voluntary opportunities to reach sanctuary destinations and high-wealth areas that support Biden’s open-border policies, welcome immigrants, and have significant resources to care for these individuals.”

Sellstrom, however, said the journey to Martha’s Vineyard was cloaked in deception from the beginning.

“The people that engineered this,” he added, “were holding themselves out as people who wanted to help our clients, and now we know that this was just, in fact, a political stunt.”

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The Abbott administration bused migrants from Texas to the Washington, D.C., residence of Vice President Kamala Harris on Thursday, and has been busing migrants to Chicago since Aug. 31.

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, said state and local authorities were examining whether a crime was committed, and questioned whether the migrants who boarded the buses did so willingly and understood the waiver that they signed, according to The Washington Post.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, also a Democrat, said she believed that the migrants were misled, and that “the only option for them that they’ve been presented by the folks in Texas is a free bus ride.”

Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze told the Post that the migrants “willingly chose to go to Chicago, having signed a voluntary consent waiver available in multiple languages upon boarding that they agreed on the destination.”

Venezuelan migrants gather at the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal in Martha’s Vineyard on Friday.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

In Massachusetts, Eoin Reilly, a longtime immigration lawyer from Roslindale, said that being flown to Martha’s Vineyard instead of Boston might not matter in court, but that being promised a job that did not exist is a more serious legal issue.

“To my mind, it would be a crime only if somebody actually promised something that was crucial to the decision by the migrants to get on the plane,” Reilly said.

“For example, if they boarded because they would indeed get three months free rent and job placement,” he added. “If that was the deciding factor to get on the plane, then that does strike me as malfeasance.”

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Sarang Sekhavat, political director for the Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said questions of criminality would include whether the migrants “were coerced somehow. Was it fraudulent?”

“I almost compare it to luring a child into a van with candy. That’s basically what you’re doing,” Sekhavat said.

For J. Antonio Fernandez, who heads the San Antonio arm of Catholic Charities, which will take over operations of the Migrant Resource Center Monday, the incident served as a reminder of the desperation of migrants who come to the United States seeking opportunity and stability for their families.

“They have no choice; they really need this,” Fernandez said. “It’s not that they have a choice like you and I have. So I think it’s my responsibility, and I think it is the responsibility of my people, to ensure that we can help them to have a better life.”

Joshua Fechter of the Texas Tribune contributed to this report.



Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.