Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
WASHINGTON — Three Venezuelan migrants flown from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard last week filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Florida officials Tuesday after the firebrand Republican’s move to transport migrants to a Democrat-controlled state sparked national controversy and a criminal investigation.
The lawsuit alleges the migrants were tricked into traveling on the airplane with false promises of money, work, housing and food.
DeSantis and other officials “designed and executed a premeditated, fraudulent, and illegal scheme centered on exploiting this vulnerability for the sole purpose of advancing their own personal, financial and political interests,” the suit claims.
DeSantis sent the planes to Martha’s Vineyard last week, mimicking Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s monthslong practice of busing migrants to Democrat-led cities.
The suit alleges an elaborate scheme of unidentified individuals who lured migrants to travel on the planes. This included providing hotel rooms, McDonald’s gift cards, hundreds of dollars in cash and false promises of their ultimate destination. Migrants on the flight last week said a woman going by the name of Perla approached them outside San Antonio’s Migrant Resource Center and promised them jobs and shelter. Some said they were told they were going to Boston. But they arrived in Martha’s Vineyard, where local officials were caught off guard.
Republicans frequently refer to those taking the trips as “illegal immigrants,” but many of them are asylum-seekers who have been allowed to enter the country pending the outcome of their legal cases.
The suit says the unidentified individuals identified and targeted the migrants “by trolling streets outside of a migrant shelter in Texas and other similar locales, pretending to be good Samaritans offering humanitarian assistance.”
The migrants are asking to be awarded damages, as well as an injunction blocking DeSantis and the state from coercing immigrants to travel by “fraud and misrepresentation.”
A spokesperson for DeSantis called the lawyers representing the migrants activists.
“The transportation of the immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard was done on a voluntary basis,” Taryn Fenske said in a statement. “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. It was disappointing that Martha’s Vineyard called in the Massachusetts National Guard to bus them away from the island within 48 hours.”
Republican leaders are paying to transport migrants to Democrat-led places as a way to call attention to the Biden administration’s immigration policies. The moves also come as a surge of migrants cross the United States border. Local officials along the border have said they are being overwhelmed by the number of people needing help once they arrive. Federal officials on Monday announced they have made more than 2 million immigration arrests along the country’s southern border during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, which sets a new record for the number of apprehensions in a one-year period.
Immigration rights groups and Democrats have accused Republicans of exploiting migrants for political points, claiming the migrants were misled before being flown to Massachusetts last week. Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar announced his criminal investigation into the flights Monday night, saying he believed a crime had occurred but declining to name suspects.
“We want to know what was promised to [the migrants]. 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.
Florida has committed $12 million to the migrant relocation program, even though the migrants DeSantis has relocated so far were in Texas, not Florida. Abbott has spent at least $12 million so far on buses sending migrants to New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Last week, he sent buses to the Washington residence of Vice President Kamala Harris.
DeSantis has spent over $1.5 million so far on the flights, according to state records.
To date, Abbott’s office says it’s transported at least 10,000 migrants to Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago — self-proclaimed sanctuary cities run by Democrats. The trips are under the umbrella of his more than $4 billion border security initiative dubbed Operation Lone Star, intended to curb border crossings.
Abbott touted his busing scheme on Tuesday, sharing the number of migrants who have been transported to other cities. In a tweet, Abbott said over 8,100 migrants have been sent to Washington, D.C., over 2,600 have gone to New York City and over 675 migrants to Chicago.
“President Biden continues ignoring the historic crisis at our southern border caused by his open border policies, so we will bring the border to him. Texas will continue sending migrants to sanctuary cities like Washington, D.C. until President Biden and Border Czar Harris do their jobs and secure the border,” Abbott said in a statement.
In May, Arizona started busing migrants from the state to Washington, D.C., which has cost the state $3 million in the program’s first three months, according to AZFamily. El Paso, a Democrat-led city, sent a bus of 35 migrants to New York in late August.
While the busing policy sparked national outrage among Democrats and immigration groups, recent polling shows that in Texas, a majority of voters support Abbott’s migrant relocation plan.
William Melhado contributed to this story.
The Texas Tribune Festival is almost here! From Thursday through Saturday, Sept. 22-24, in downtown Austin, TribFest attendees will enjoy three days full of mind-expanding events, conversations and panels featuring more than 350 big names including Chris Bosh, Pete Buttigieg, Liz Cheney, Annette Gordon-Reed and many others. Join us for Texas’ biggest politics and policy event when you buy your tickets today.