A Texas sheriff said Monday he has opened a criminal investigation into Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ relocation program that flew roughly 50 Venezuela migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard last week, amid complaints the migrants were duped into getting onto two chartered planes with false promises of cash payments and job opportunities.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said in a news briefing Monday his office will look into whether the migrants were “lured . . . under false pretenses” from a Migrant Resource Center in San Antonio and brought — after a brief stop in Florida — to Martha’s Vineyard, “where they were unceremoniously stranded.”
Salazar, a Democrat, called the relocation program “political posturing” and “little more than a video op.”
“What infuriates me most about this case is that here we have 48 people that are already on hard times, they are here legally in our country. At that point, they have every right to be where they are and I believe that they were preyed upon,” Salazar told reporters at a news conference. “Somebody came from out of state and preyed upon these people, lured them with promises of a better life, which is what they were absolutely looking for.”
The announcement came hours after lawyers who have been assisting the migrants in Massachusetts shared copies of newly discovered pamphlets some of the migrants received that, according to the lawyers, had misleading information — what they called further proof that the migrants were duped into boarding the planes.
State Senator Julian Cyr, whose district includes Martha’s Vineyard, said he welcomed the probe launched by Salazar but will continue, with state Representative Dylan Fernandes, to call for a federal investigation into the operation.
“A tragedy at the very least, at the worst probably some sort of a crime.”— Julianne Lima (@JulianneLimaTV) September 20, 2022
A TX Sheriff is launching an investigation into how and why 4 dozen Venezuelan migrants were transported to Martha’s Vineyard last week.
The allegations & response from @GovRonDeSantis on @boston25 pic.twitter.com/7oFQDmuXwT
Salazar confirmed in a news release reported by the Miami Herald and The Texas Tribune that he has been in contact with the migrants’ lawyers. He said the migrants were lured onto the plane by a fellow Venezuelan immigrant who was paid for the work.
“We are also preparing to work with any federal agencies that have concurrent jurisdiction, should the need arise,” added Salazar in the news release.
Salazar said he did not yet know what charges could be brought or whom they could be brought against.
“We want to know what was promised to them. What, if anything, did they sign? Did they understand the document that was put in front of them if they signed something? Or was this strictly a predatory measure?” Salazar said at the news conference.
“I believe people need to be held accountable for it to the extent possible,” he told reporters. “At this point, I’m not able to definitively say here’s the statute that they broke either federal, state, or local. But what I can tell you is it’s wrong just from a human rights perspective. What was done to these folks is wrong.”
DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to messages or phone calls seeking comment Monday night.
The pamphlets that some migrants received, which The Boston Globe reviewed, featured a picture of the Massachusetts “Welcomes You” sign and a drawing of the Commonwealth below the words, “Massachusetts Refugee Benefits.” It listed a website address to a reference guide about the island, and phone numbers to an Edgartown church, the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, and Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. The pamphlet also summarized refugee programs that purportedly would provide assistance with housing, furnishings, food, Social Security card assistance, and cash support.
“Resettlement agencies who resettle refugees . . . provide cash assistance and in-kind support for refugees” beyond other standard programs, the brochure reads, adding that an employee program, “provides targeted services for both early employment and long-term self-sufficiency.”
The lawyers who have been working pro bono for the migrants said the brochures erroneously suggested such services would be readily made available to them.
“This document is additional proof that our clients were defrauded and deceived as part of this scheme,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston organization whose attorneys represent about half of the nearly 50 migrants.
Lawyers for Civil Rights has been pressing federal and state authorities to launch criminal and civil investigations into the scheme. The lawyers continued on Monday to meet one-on-one with the migrants, mostly young men and some families, who have been housed at Joint Base Cape Cod in Bourne since Friday.
On Monday, a migrant who identified himself as Carlos, 25, said he and the rest of the group were doing well. The Joint Base, which lawmakers from both political parties toured Monday, was set up as a transitional shelter while advocates and lawyers work with the migrants, directing them to resources and assisting them with their immigration status.
“We already have personal lawyers to help us with our asylums,” Carlos told the Globe in a text. “We are still waiting for new good news.”
The planes from Texas, for which DeSantis took responsibility, represent the latest in a series of theatrical relocations of unsuspecting migrants that have been organized by Republican governors, in what has become a politically charged debate over the country’s immigration policies. They argue liberal-leaning states should also have to burden the consequences of the immigration system that have historically been left to border states.
On Monday, DeSantis, a possible 2024 presidential candidate, repeated his stance that the migrants were not misled into getting on the planes, which were private charter flights paid for by Florida taxpayers.
In an interview with conservative radio host Erick Erickson, DeSantis said “the vendor [of the planes] got written consent forms from everybody that was transported, also provided a packet that had a map of Martha’s Vineyard, numbers on the Vineyard for social services, as well as for the state of Massachusetts.
“There was no doubt that that is where they were going,” he said. “In fact, when they were getting ready to do the transport, there were some migrants who said ‘we don’t want to go to Massachusetts’ and so they ended up not going. It was purely voluntary.”
DeSantis also made the claim that some migrants have “written to the vendor, thanking the vendor for effectuating their transport.”
A day earlier, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker did not address the politics of the stunt directly but said sending people to Martha’s Vineyard isn’t a solution to “the very screwed up immigration system that we have in the US,” and he urged Washington, D.C., lawmakers to fix it.
“It’s not a secret to anyone that our immigration system is broken, and it’s not a secret that the border is also broken because our immigration system is broken,” Baker said. “The states can’t fix it. So any conversation with any governor doesn’t really get me anywhere.”
Baker added, “What really needs to happen here is Washington needs to do its job. And its job is to come up with immigration policy that’s enforceable, that works, and that people understand, because we certainly don’t have that now.
Meanwhile, faith leaders across the country on Monday condemned DeSantis’ surprise relocation of the migrants, emphasizing their humane treatment is more than a political issue.
At a virtual press conference, Catholic, Evangelical Christian, and Jewish community leaders called DeSantis’ move a political stunt that betrays the values of most religions.
Gabriel Salguero, founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and a Florida pastor, said his governor’s decision to load the migrants onto two planes to Martha’s Vineyard was “incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
“This is not for us a partisan issue. This for us is a moral issue,” Salguero said.
Martha’s Vineyard Community Services says it has received $269K in donations for the migrants from “across the country from people who saw the story and were concerned for their wellbeing.” She says the first disbursements of $2,500 should be delivered to migrants today #wcvb pic.twitter.com/w2h1N3gNDp— Sharman Sacchetti (@SharmanTV) September 19, 2022
In a video the migrant Carlos posted to his Instagram page, a cellphone camera captured a room full of cafeteria tables, where a mix of lawyers, migrants, and members of the National Guard milled about.
“The fifty migrants of Martha’s Vineyard,” the caption said, in an apparent jab at the political discourse. “Here we are still.”
In another video on Carlos’s Instagram, a group of men played basketball on a court. The caption was three emojis depicting the American flag.
Another migrant, Enrique, 36, said he saw a nurse who referred him to a doctor upon arriving at Joint Base Friday.
Enrique said he completed a dangerous journey to the United States, “just me and God.”
While he traveled through Mexico, he was kidnapped and tortured, he said, pointing out scars on his face and neck to a Globe reporter. He was taken to a shelter and eventually recovered.
Globe correspondent Nick Stoico contributed to this article.
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