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Civil rights lawyers ask Healey, Rollins to open criminal investigation into migrants’ plight

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

Venezuelan migrants whose surprise journey to Martha’s Vineyard unwittingly thrust them into the nation’s divisive immigration debate met Saturday with pro bono attorneys at their temporary quarters on Cape Cod as a prominent civil rights group asked Massachusetts prosecutors to launch criminal investigations.

The migrants, who arrived Friday at Joint Base Cape Cod in Bourne, need immediate assistance with their immigration cases, as some are required to check in with immigration officials or appear in immigration courts as early as next week in places such as Texas, Virginia, and Washington, said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights.

The organization on Saturday sent letters to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and Rachael Rollins, the US attorney for Massachusetts, asking them to open criminal investigations into the operation that transported the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard on Wednesday.

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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican and possible 2024 presidential candidate, has said his administration arranged the migrants’ journey on private planes from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard with a brief stop in Florida.

In his letters to Healey and Rollins, Espinoza-Madrigal wrote that the migrants were “induced to board airplanes and cross state lines under false pretenses” and only learned during the flight that they were headed to Martha’s Vineyard, and not Boston as they had been told.

“Individuals, working in concert with the Florida Governor, made numerous false promises to our clients, including of work opportunities, schooling for their children, and immigration assistance, in order to induce them to travel,” he wrote. “Once the planes landed, those who had induced our clients to travel under these false pretenses disappeared, leaving our clients to learn that the offers of assistance had all been a ruse to exploit them for political purposes.”

On Saturday, a spokeswoman for Rollins said her office does not “have any comment at this time.” On Friday, Rollins said in an interview at the Globe Summit that she was weighing possible legal options.

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“It is sad that we are in a state of affairs where political stunts are being utilized and human beings are being taken advantage of, quite frankly, for political purposes,” she said during the event.

A representative for Healey, the Democratic nominee for governor, issued a statement Saturday night saying the attorney general will “evaluate all legal options.”

“Our office continues to review all information relevant to this situation. We are in touch with our federal and state partners, along with attorneys representing the migrants, as we gather facts and evaluate all legal options,” the statement said.

Top concerns for the migrants, said Espinoza-Madrigal, are addressing their obligations and meeting deadlines for their immigration cases, a hurdle that has been complicated by their travel to Massachusetts. About 50 migrants are on the base and more than half are being represented by Lawyers for Civil Rights.

The migrants surrendered to immigration officials when they entered the United States, asked for immigration protections, and were released, he said.

That triggered legal proceedings, including obligations to check in with immigration authorities or to make court appearances. For some migrants, the proceedings are taking place in Texas, where they were recruited to board the planes that took them to Martha’s Vineyard, Espinoza-Madrigal said.

But other migrants are expected to appear in places such as Washington or Virginia, he said, because their government paperwork said they planned to reside in those states while their immigration cases were pending.

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How those addresses were recorded on the migrants’ government documents is unclear, according to Espinoza-Madrigal. Some of the migrants said they don’t know how the addresses were assigned to them or they don’t remember being asked about a US address, he said.

Another possibility is that the addresses were written on the migrants’ paperwork by immigration officials, Espinoza-Madrigal said. In the letters to Healey and Rollins, he said the journey to Massachusetts interfered with the migrants’ “ability to comply with federal immigration obligations, such as attendance at hearings and check-ins.”

The migrants are meeting with pro bono lawyers, who have volunteered to assist, in private rooms near a cafeteria on the base, he said.

Governor Charlie Baker has said he is prepared to mobilize up to 125 members of the Massachusetts National Guard to assist the migrants at the base. On Saturday, a Guard spokesman directed questions to Baker’s office, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Martha’s Vineyard Community Services purchased cellphones for all the migrants and state lawmakers are focused on addressing their immediate needs, said state Senator Julian Cyr, a Democrat who represents upper Cape communities and the islands.

The group, he said, will “need support for quite a bit of time.”

“They just arrived after a months-long, perilous journey ... fleeing an oppressive regime,” Cyr said. So “they likely won’t be leaving the country anytime soon.”

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The migrants have access to medical care and transportation is being arranged for them, Espinoza-Madrigal said. Some have asked about opportunities to play soccer and education for their children.

Volunteer lawyers escorted them around the grounds Friday to help ease the transition, and allay concerns given the threats they faced from the military in Venezuela, he said. They have been reading news reports about their ordeal.

“The nature of how politicized immigration issues are in this country surprised our clients,” Espinoza-Madrigal said.

Ivy Scott of the Globe staff contributed to this report.







Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.