Migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis claim they were lured into boarding the flight with deceptive promises that they’d be taken to Boston for work opportunities and expedited papers, something experts say could constitute a violation of federal law.
Approximately 50 Venezuelan and Colombian migrants landed in Martha’s Vineyard airport Wednesday afternoon, and were left to find their way into the town with little to no information about where they were or where to go for resources. State Rep. Dylan Fernandes told the Vineyard Gazette that some of the migrants were “told they would receive housing and jobs immediately upon arrival,” yet the island was not notified of the transport before it landed.
DeSantis used Florida taxpayer money to pay for the flights, but they originated in Texas. Migrants interviewed by NPR reported being approached in San Antonio by a woman named “Perla” who offered them transportation to Boston, or New York. It is unclear if “Perla” was affiliated with either the Texas or Florida governments. Rachel Self, a Boston immigration attorney, elaborated on how the migrants may have been deceived while speaking to the media on Thursday night. “They were told there was a surprise present for them, and that there would be jobs and housing awaiting for them when they arrived. This was obviously a sadistic lie,” she told reporters.
Self accused organizers of the transport of kidnapping and of orchestrating a “purposeful derailment designed to prevent [migrants] from complying with federal immigration policies.”
Transporting migrants away from the border is legally dubious, and during the Trump administration ICE officials rejected a similar scheme proposed by White House adviser Stephen Miller due to liability concerns. The Martha’s Vineyard stunt could be especially problematic considering the reports that the migrants were duped about where they were being taken.
Professor Erin B. Corcoran of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies tells Rolling Stone that, like anyone in the U.S., migrants who are not being held in custody cannot be transported without voluntary and informed consent. “Consent is making a decision with full information and without duress,” she explains. “States can’t physically move immigrants like federal immigration authorities can. They can move people around if they have them in custody. States don’t have the authority to do that.”
“If they were told they were going to Boston, they may have actually wanted to go to Boston,” she adds, citing the extensive amount of legal resources in the state’s capital, particularly the concentration of law schools running free or low cost representation. “I would not say that this would constitute trafficking, but this kind of conduct is very similar to what you would see human traffickers do. They move people around without their consent, they [hang] their immigration status over them, they take them out of areas that are familiar or where they have connection and the ability to connect and get services.”
If claims that the migrants were deceived into boarding the flights are found to have standing, the legal ramifications could be serious. “If they were coerced into consenting in a language they didn’t understand, or were deliberately misled, they or Massachusetts officials could charge Texas state officials responsible for fraud — or perhaps even kidnapping, depending on how they were coerced into boarding the transport,” Susan Akram, a professor at the Boston University School of Law, explained in an email.
The Massachusetts attorney general’s office said in a statement to Rolling Stone that their office is “in touch with state and local partners to offer support and resources as needed,” and is working to “get more information about this situation.”
Georgetown Law Professor Heidi Li Feldman says another possible avenue for legal recourse would be a tort suit on behalf of transported asylum seekers. Deception by transport organizers would mean the migrants likely “have a viable cause of action to sue DeSantis and those who helped him” for “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” as well as pain and suffering, Feldman says. This same principle was used by families separated at the border to sue the Trump administration for damages, a case that could potentially result in the government having to pay millions to asylum seekers.
The federal government could also take legal action, as, according to University of Southern California Gould School of Law Professor Jean Reisz, preventing migrants from obtaining resources could give the U.S. standing to argue that DeSantis, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and anyone else orchestrating these stunts are “frustrating the government’s enforcement ability.” Impeding the government’s ability to keep tabs on cases could open up Republicans to legal scrutiny, as Reisz notes that asylum seekers are typically “under some kind of ICE supervision” as they appear before immigration officers and courts.
Professor Akram agrees, writing that “moving a case from one immigration jurisdiction to another is not a determination an individual state can make, and any state taking that into its own hands runs afoul of the federal immigration [system] — which raises the possibility of the federal government having a claim.”
In any case, legal action is already being explored. Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston area non-profit, said in a statement that they are “investigating the inhumane manner in which they were shipped across the country, to determine the responsible parties, whether state or federal criminal laws against human trafficking and kidnapping were violated, and what other legal remedies are available.” California Governor Gavin Newsom announced on Twitter that he has already asked the Department of Justice to open an investigation into “possible criminal or civil violations of federal law based on this alleged fraudulent scheme.”
The primary concern right now for those on Martha’s Vineyard, however, is ensuring that the migrants who arrived unexpectedly on Wednesday are able to secure aid and representation. Father Chip Seadale of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, which is assisting in the effort to aid the migrants, tells Rolling Stone that efforts are being made to secure legal aid. “I’ve got lawyers coming from Boston and some on the island who are well versed in this situation with respect to the legal ramifications of being an undocemented refugee in the United States.” Seadale says all of the migrants are meeting with lawyers on an individual basis to ensure “their rights are preserved as best as possible.”
Self, the Boston immigration attorney, added on Thursday that several of the migrants she spoke to face additional challenges, indicating that despite arriving in Texas their cases had been registered to random homeless shelters throughout the country by the Department of Homeland Security.
“Agents apparently chose random homeless shelters all across the country, from Washington to Florida, to list the migrants’ mailing addresses, even when told by the migrants that they had no address in the U.S.,” Self said.
Immigration law requires the migrants to check in at the immigration office closest to their registered address or risk removal, with some having mandated appearances as soon as Monday.
On Friday, some of the migrants were voluntarily transported to Joint Base Cape Cod where they will be provided “accommodation, clothing and hygiene kits, nutrition, needs assessment, and access to health care, mental health, and crisis counseling services.” Governor Charlie Baker indicated in a statement that his administration “has been working across state government to develop a plan to ensure these individuals will have access to the services they need going forward, and Joint Base Cape Cod is well equipped to serve these needs.”
The exploitative, opportunistic nature of the move is not lost on residents and elected officials. “Just like the reverse freedom rides in the 1960s, this endeavor is a cruel ruse that is manipulating families who are seeking a better life,” Massachusetts State Sen. Julian Cyr told the Vineyard Gazette, accusing DeSantis of “capitalizing on the difficult circumstances that these families are in” to orchestrate a ‘gotcha’ moment.” Massachusetts Rep. Bill Keating, who represents Martha’s Vineyard in Washington, criticized DeSantis for treating “human beings like cargo.”
While the migrant transportation stunt popularized earlier this year by Abbott is predicated on a belief that local residents would undoubtedly be furious at the notion of having migrants in their neighborhood, the reality is quite different. “I’m very proud of our community,” says Father Seadale. Residents of the area have mobilized to provide food, shelter, medical care and support services to the migrants, and are prepared to help them recover from the unexpected relocation.
Carla Cooper, head of the Democratic Council of Martha’s Vineyard, told the Cape Cod Times that by the time the migrants arrived in the afternoon, some had not eaten since 6 a.m. “It is disgusting and repulsive that these people were herded like cattle onto a plane,” Cooper said. Another resident of the area posted in a private Facebook group that “on Martha’s Vineyard, we won’t turn our backs on people in need who are being abused by extremist Republican governors for some cheap soundbite on Fox News.”
Fox News did obtain exclusive footage of the migrants’ arrival, and Rep. Keating told CBS that DeSantis sent a videographer along with the migrants. The Washington Post reported on Friday that the Florida governor may be taking advantage of loopholes in federal Covid relief funding in order to finance the stunt. The $12 million set aside by the state for the scheme is likely coming from interest accrued on federal pandemic money, which the state can use basically without restriction.