Migrants were promised jobs, free housing before being taken to Martha's Vineyard
MARTHA'S VINEYARD – The migrants were approached as they crossed the street to go to McDonald's. Many got their first taste of the United States while staying at a shelter in San Antonio.
An unidentified man and woman walked up to them and offered what sounded too good to be true: well-paying jobs, free housing, transportation. As an added incentive, the migrants were handed $50 gift cards.
The recently arrived migrants – most of them men from Venezuela paroled into the United States until their immigration court hearing – jumped at the chance.
The offer was, in fact, too good to be true. By day’s end, they had all been flown to Martha’s Vineyard, an island off Massachusetts' coast unfamiliar to the migrants. They were abandoned with no jobs, no housing, no explanation.
“It’s criminal,” said Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Washington-based civil rights group, who met and spoke with three of the migrants Friday. “The terrible inhumanity of the governor of Florida using human beings with nothing but the clothes on their back as political piñatas.”
More details emerged Friday about the group of about 50 Venezuelan migrants flown from Texas to Martha's Vineyard this week aboard two charter flights, trips orchestrated by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
A DeSantis spokesperson said the migrants were flown to Martha's Vineyard Wednesday as part of the governor's "promise to drop off undocumented migrants in progressive states." DeSantis had persuaded state lawmakers to allocate $12 million to create a program to transfer migrants out of Florida, but it's unknown whether that money was used for these flights.
DeSantis said in a news conference Friday that Florida officials have been in Texas for months to determine who was trying to go to Florida, and “then offering them free transportation to sanctuary jurisdictions.” He said there would be more buses and flights with migrants, but he did not detail whether they would be going to Florida or other states.
“The Legislature gave me $12 million. We’re going to spend every penny of that to make sure that we're protecting the people of the state of Florida,” he said.
The unexpected arrival of the asylum seekers prompted Massachusetts officials to transport them Friday to Joint Base Cape Cod, a military base where they'll be housed until they leave for their final destinations. Some have families and friends in the United States they're trying to reach.
The governors of Texas and Arizona have been directing charter buses to take thousands of migrants out of those states to New York, Washington and Chicago for months. The states have said they're doing it to make a political statement but have insisted the trips are voluntary.
Column:Ron DeSantis' Martha's Vineyard stunt cruelly uses migrants as human pawns, helping no one
Officials from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's office said they were not involved with the flight to Martha's Vineyard but had been in contact with DeSantis' staff about transporting migrants.
Texas has transported more than 11,000 migrants from the state on more than 245 chartered buses. The day after the Martha's Vineyard flight, Texas dropped off busloads of immigrants at the Naval Observatory in Washington, where Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff reside.
"Gov. Abbott encourages and welcomes all his fellow governors to engage in this effort to secure the border and focus on the failing and illegal efforts of the Biden-Harris administration to continue these reckless open border policies," Renae Eze, Abbott's press secretary, said in a statement.
But this week's transport of migrants from Texas to Massachusetts is the first where the migrants may have been overtly deceived into going and involves state officials meddling with migrants in another state, drawing questions of coercion and constitutional violations, said Denise Gilman, head of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin.
"This seems to be a government action by the state of Florida to take people without their consent into custody and transport them," she said. "It's an unconstitutional government action."
Garcia said the three Venezuelan men he spoke with had crossed into the United States at Eagle Pass, Texas, and later traveled to San Antonio. They were staying at the Migrant Resource Center there, a city-run respite center, while they finalized travel plans.
One of the men, who did not want his name revealed, said he had been kidnapped by Mexican cartels on his way to the United States and had six teeth pulled as the cartel tried to ransom him for money, Garcia said.
Outside the San Antonio center, they were given the offer of jobs and free housing and the $50 gift cards, he said. They were handed red folders with what proved to be fake documents promising jobs and housing, then flown to Martha's Vineyard in private charter planes, stopping at least once along the way, Garcia said.
None of the men had ever heard of Martha's Vineyard, he said. All of them had wanted to go to Florida.
Garcia said his group is drafting a letter urging the U.S. Justice Department to investigate.
"It's the first time in American history I've heard of any governor using refugees in this matter," he said.
Everlides Dela Hoz, a mother and grandmother who made the trek from Venezuela with her husband and 25-year-old son, said the group, while grateful for the response they received in Martha's Vineyard, is angry that they were lied to.
“When we got on the plane, they told us they would give us jobs, a place to live, everything,” she said through a translator. “The whole group is pretty upset. But they did take us to a nice place.”
Venezuelan American leaders in Florida denounced the “flights of asylum seekers” to Martha’s Vineyard, blasting DeSantis.
“Venezuelan leaders are rightfully outraged,” five Venezuelan American groups said in a joint statement, calling the governor’s move a “blatant disregard for human life” and accusing him of lying to Cuban and Venezuelan communities this month when they said he pledged not to sent migrants from either country out of state.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined Friday to say whether the White House was looking into the legality of DeSantis’ actions and referred questions to the Justice Department.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden criticized Republican governors who have sent migrants out of their states.
“What they're doing is simply wrong, it's un-American, it's reckless,” he said. “We have a process in place to manage migrants at the border. We're working to make sure it's safe and orderly and humane. Republican officials should not interfere with that process by waging these political stunts.”
It has been common practice recently for migrants such as those from Venezuela to cross between border entries and surrender to U.S. Border Patrol to seek asylum rather than wait in dangerous Mexican border towns for a chance to enter.
Political and economic unrest in Venezuela has spurred many to flee their country. Through July of this fiscal year, 128,556 Venezuelans have been encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border, a steep increase from last year's total of 48,678 and just 2,787 in 2020.
After being processed by Border Patrol agents, Venezuelans are commonly released into the United States to await their next immigration hearing. At respite centers in Eagle Pass or Del Rio in South Texas, they take buses to San Antonio, where they board flights to reunite with relatives in U.S. cities or hop aboard free state-chartered buses.
Gregory Chen, senior director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said his group has attorneys on the ground speaking with migrants who were taken to Martha's Vineyard.
He said some of the migrants were promised “various inducements,” such as having their cases processed more quickly.
“The problem here is that these false pretenses are unethical and will put migrants in jeopardy,” Chen said, adding that some of the migrants could miss their court hearings because of the confusion.
Because they have been released by federal agencies, immigration laws don't apply, said Kate Huddleston, a Houston-based staff attorney with the ACLU who focuses on immigrants' rights.
But the fact that the migrants may not have known where they were going is cause for concern, she said.
"This is an incredibly concerning escalation in both Florida and Texas' use of migrants as political pawns," Huddleston said.
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