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Immigrant-rights advocates file suit against Florida officials for sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard

Venezuelan migrants prepared to be taken to Bourne last week.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

A Boston legal group on Tuesday sued Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and others involved in the relocation of nearly 50 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard last week, alleging the officials ran an illegal scheme that exploited vulnerable immigrants with false promises of cash payments and job opportunities.

The class action lawsuit said the relocation was a “premeditated, fraudulent, and illegal scheme centered on exploiting” the vulnerability of immigrants who fled to the United States “in a desperate attempt to protect themselves and their families from gang, police, and state-sponsored violence.”

The lawsuit was filed by Lawyers for Civil Rights in US District Court in Boston on behalf of the migrants and Alianza Americas, a network of immigrant-led support organizations across the country. It named as defendants DeSantis, seen as a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, and other Florida officials, along with five “unidentified accomplices.”

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“For the governor of Florida to cynically use recently arrived immigrants who have applied for asylum in the US to advance a hate-driven agenda intended to create confusion and rejection throughout the country, is not only morally despicable, but utterly contrary to the best traditions of humanitarian protection embraced by most Americans,” Oscar Chacón, executive director of Alianza Americas, said in a statement.

In response to the lawsuit, DeSantis’ office accused the lawyers of “political theater” and blamed the underlying immigration problems on the “Biden administration’s reckless border policies.”

“The transportation of the immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard was done on a voluntary basis,” the governor’s office asserted. ”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.”

The lawsuit came one day after Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar announced he had launched a criminal probe into the relocation, saying the migrants were apparently recruited into making the trip from a migrant center in San Antonio by a fellow immigrant who was paid for the work. Most of the migrants are from Venezuela and had crossed the US border in Texas.

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On Tuesday, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said he was pleased a criminal investigation had been launched.

“It’s up to the authorities on the ground there to figure out what did and didn’t happen,” Baker said during an unrelated event, according to footage posted to WBZ-TV. “I am very glad that the sheriff chose to open an investigation. I think that’s the right thing to do.”

State Representative Dylan Fernandes, a Falmouth Democrat who represents Martha’s Vineyard, said several migrants have told him they were promised three months’ worth of work and housing if they agreed to relocate to Massachusetts, as well as legal assistance to guide them through the immigration process.

“They reiterated that they were lied to and got onto the plane under false pretenses,” Fernandes said.

In an interview on GBH-TV, Fernandes said he has received death threats over his support for the migrants and has alerted State Police.

“You should see my inbox right now, and how ugly it is,” Fernandes said. “It speaks to the nature of where we’re at in this country, where treating human beings with dignity is a controversial thing.”

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On Friday, the migrants who arrived on the Vineyard were moved to temporary quarters at the Joint Base Cape Cod military compound in Bourne. They have since met with pro bono lawyers about their immigration cases, as some are required to check in with immigration officials or appear in immigration courts as early as next week.

State Senator Julian Cyr, a Democrat from Truro who represents Martha’s Vineyard, said immigration attorneys told him nearly all of the migrants had reported themselves to immigration authorities and were beginning the process of seeking asylum.

Cyr said two people have already been processed and have left for New York City.

“These are people who are fleeing a brutal communist dictator in [Nicolás] Maduro and genuinely are here for asylum,” he said. “None of them, to our knowledge, were in violation of federal immigration law. That raises real questions as to whether or not this transport and related activities interfere with federal immigration due process, and whether or not the rights of these asylum seekers were violated.”

The lawsuit alleged that people working with the Florida officials approached migrants near the resource center in San Antonio and other locations, provided inducements such as $10 McDonald’s gift cards, and made false promises of jobs, housing, and educational opportunities to persuade them to board airplanes.

The defendants allegedly spent $615,000 on private chartered planes for the immigrants, telling them falsely that they were traveling to Boston or Washington, D.C., according to the lawsuit.

When the Venezuelans arrived on Martha’s Vineyard with no advance notice and no support services awaiting them, they attempted to call the people in Texas who had persuaded them to get on the planes, but were unable to reach them, documents show.

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The relocation has further inflamed an already tense national debate about immigration policies, with Republican governors of border states arguing their communities are being overwhelmed. New data show that border arrests surpassed 2 million in a single year for the first time.

DeSantis has acknowledged that his state paid for the relocation from Texas, arguing the migrants were bound for Florida.

But some Florida lawmakers are questioning whether DeSantis sidestepped state law in financing the relocation flights. In March, Florida lawmakers allocated $12 million meant for “implementing a program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state consistent with federal law.”

The program was financed by the interest Florida earned on the $5.8 billion in federal COVID-19 relief dollars the state received during the pandemic.

At issue is the wording in the bill. The language says transport must be “from this state,” but the flights to Martha’s Vineyard originated in Texas, not Florida. The law also specifies the transport be limited to “unauthorized aliens,” while lawyers speaking for the migrants say many were seeking asylum, putting them in a different legal category.

On Monday, two Democratic members of the Florida House of Representatives sent a letter to Republican legislative leaders, alleging that the migrants were taken “for political purposes” and that ”it is crystal clear that it was not intended to use state funds to transport migrants into the state solely so they could be deported to Massachusetts.”

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“The assertion that these people might have wanted to come to Florida is not a sufficient reason to intercept, deceive, and transport asylum seekers two thousand miles,” they wrote. “This case has caused national attention and outrage, and quite possibly opened Florida to costly lawsuits.”

At the end of the letter, they asked leaders to “stop this inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars before it occurs again.”

During budget negotiations, state Senator Annette Taddeo, a Miami-Dade Democrat, tried to make exemptions in the transport program for those fleeing repressive countries such as Venezuela and Cuba. Her amendment did not pass.

It’s personal for Taddeo, a onetime gubernatorial candidate who is running for Congress and was forced to flee Colombia at 17 after her father was kidnapped by a rebel group.

“We specifically asked about asylum-seekers and were told that we didn’t have to worry about that because they were fine,” she said in an interview on Monday. “And here they are sending Venezuelans. For a body that always pretends to be so caring for freedom and against communism, it really is quite appalling.”

Catherine Carlock and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.



Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her @samanthajgross. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him @jeremycfox. Emily Sweeney can be reached at emily.sweeney@globe.com. Follow her @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22.