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Local officials and advocates support Texas sheriff’s probe into relocation of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard

A Venezuelan migrant boards a bus to the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal outside of St. Andrew's Parish House in Martha’s Vineyard on Sept. 16, 2022. Two planes of migrants from Venezuela arrived suddenly two days prior causing the local community to mobilize and create a makeshift shelter at the church.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Local officials and advocates are applauding the decision by a Texas sheriff to open a criminal investigation into the relocation initiative that brought dozens of Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard last week.

Oren Sellstrom, the litigation director for the Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights, said his organization was “gratified” to hear the news that the sheriff had opened the criminal investigation, and “we encourage other law enforcement authorities to do the same.”

“Our clients were victimized in an orchestrated scheme that unfolded across multiple jurisdictions and involved numerous different perpetrators,” Sellstrom said in an e-mail to the Globe. “Our clients stand ready to assist law enforcement in any way possible to bring the perpetrators of this despicable scheme to justice.”

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Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, a Democrat, said in a news briefing Monday his office will look into whether the migrants were “lured . . . under false pretenses” to Martha’s Vineyard, “where they were unceremoniously stranded.”

“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. “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 roughly 50 migrants who arrived on the Vineyard last week were moved to temporary quarters at Joint Base Cape Cod in Bourne on Friday. Over the weekend they met with pro bono attorneys about their immigration cases, as some are required to check in with immigration officials or appear in immigration courts as early as next week.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker told reporters Tuesday he was pleased to hear that a probe had been launched.

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“It’s up to the authorities on the ground there to figure out what did and didn’t happen,” Baker told reporters at an unrelated event, per 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.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has said his administration arranged the migrants’ travel to Martha’s Vineyard on private planes.

Taryn Fenske, communications director for DeSantis’ office, released a statement Tuesday saying that Florida gave the migrants an opportunity to seek “greener pastures” in a sanctuary state.

“Immigrants have been more than willing to leave Bexar County after being abandoned, homeless, and ‘left to fend for themselves,’” the statement said. “Florida gave them an opportunity to seek greener pastures in a sanctuary jurisdiction that offered greater resources for them, as we expected. Unless the MA national guard has abandoned these individuals, they have been provided accommodations, sustenance, clothing and more options to succeed following their unfair enticement into the United States, unlike the 53 immigrants who died in a truck found abandoned in Bexar County this June.”

State Representative Dylan Fernandes, whose district includes Martha’s Vineyard, supported the Bexar County sheriff’s decision to launch the investigation.

“Not only has this been morally criminal, I think there are legal implications here,” Fernandes said in a phone interview.

Fernandes said he spoke to several migrants who told him they were promised three months’ worth of work and housing, as well as legal assistance to guide them through the immigration process.

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

Fernandes said migrants he spoke to didn’t know they were flying to Martha’s Vineyard.

“As soon as they landed, they saw they were on an island surrounded by water. They were incredibly scared and confused,” Fernandes said. “It seems to me there are clear legal implications here.”

Fernandes said he has spoken to spoken to US Attorney Rachael Rollins and wants to see the Department of Justice open an investigation.

State Senator Julian Cyr, whose district includes Martha’s Vineyard, echoed those sentiments, tweeting Monday that a federal probe is “absolutely warranted.”

Cyr said he also visited and spoke with the Venezuelan migrants and listened to what they had to say about the situation.

“I’d ask them, how did you feel coming here. What did you think?” Cyr said. “To me, they would describe and use words that translated to ‘kidnapped’, ‘tricked,’ and ‘manipulated.’ It raises real questions about their informed consent. Serious crimes may have been committed here.”

Globe correspondent Nick Stoico and Travis Andersen of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.




Emily Sweeney can be reached at emily.sweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22.