WASHINGTON (TND) — The debate over how to handle immigration at the southern border is heating up after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis flew nearly 50 Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
The controversial move followed similar action by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who sent busloads of migrants to New York City and Washington, D.C. but DeSantis is facing far more backlash.
The migrants who were sent to the small Massachusetts island are now suing DeSantis and the state's transportation secretary, Jared W. Perdue, alleging that they were victims of a “premeditated, fraudulent and illegal scheme” that they say officials carried out “for the sole purpose of advancing their own personal, financial and political interests.”
While the migrants did not enter the U.S. legally, that doesn't mean they don't have rights and the lawsuit points out that the plaintiffs are now “authorized by federal immigration officials to remain in the United States.”
Maryland Deputy Attorney General Thiru Vignarajah explains that upon entering the U.S. — legally or not — migrants are entitled to protection under the law.
“Once they are here, they have, in many respects, the same rights to bring lawsuits, to be protected by both criminal and civil laws under state and federal law,” Vignarajah said.
The migrants say they were coerced into boarding the planes relocating them from Texas with false promises of work, housing, schooling for children and other assistance.
“Victims of human trafficking, victims of fraud, victims of violence, we want those individuals to be able to access the courts,” Vignarajah said.
DeSantis has fired back at the claims, saying it was all voluntary and that it was done with the goal of helping these individuals.
“Those migrants were being treated horribly by Biden. They were hungry, homeless. They had no opportunity at all. The state of Florida — it was volunteer — offered transport to sanctuary jurisdictions,” DeSantis said.
The lawsuit, which was filed in a federal court in Boston as the migrants allege that they were told they were going to Boston or Washington, claims it's all political theatre. Another allegation was that there were discriminatory practices.
“Just like any other lawsuit, they'll have to present facts. They'll have to have witnesses testify that these were the things that were told to them. They may have receipts, they may have information, they will corroborate one another,” Vignarajah said. “The fact that bringing class action that so many individuals are willing to step up means that they do have a colorable claim to try to bring this case forward.”
Vignarajah added that if there are other flights in the future, more plaintiffs could join the suit.
“Their circumstances might be different, which means they may have to form their own class,” Vignarajah said. “But as you have more and more victims, you oftentimes see classes in large — from small to medium to large.”
The migrants are seeking unspecified damages from their suit, leaving some wondering what this could cost DeSantis — or more realistically the state of Florida — if they win.
“This is a real challenge to what the state of Florida and what DeSantis has done. These are potential civil rights violations. These are different fraud violations and the cost of them will be emotional, they'll be direct. This could easily be millions of dollars to the state of Florida,” Vignarajah said.
The class is also suing for a ban on this practice of relocating migrants, saying they don't want this to happen again but Vignarajah says that might not be in the best interest of future migrants, depending on the case.
“You potentially want to be able to relocate people. There are circumstances where — voluntarily — that may be helpful but what DeSantis has done here I think has caught a lot of us off guard as something that looks a lot more like politically motivated theater than an honest humane act for the sake of the migrants,” Vignarajah said.
There's also a criminal investigation related to the flights now underway in Bexar County, Texas.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar spoke at a news conference Monday, saying his office was opening a case into the accusations that the group of Venezuelan migrants were “lured” from a migrant resource center into traveling to Martha’s Vineyard “under false pretenses.”
Salazar said he believes that the migrants were “exploited and hoodwinked” and mentioned that a recruiter was paid a "bird dog fee" to gather roughly 50 people around a San Antonio migrant resource center.
“What infuriates me the 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,” he said.
Vignarajah says he believes criminal charges could come out of this.
“The fact is that the individual allegations that are being contemplated here are many of the same tactics that human traffickers use. Oftentimes they have consent forms that are difficult to understand, that they think they're going to wave around and say ‘this is why it wasn't trafficking.’ People have been able to overcome that,” Vignarajah said.
He added, “If there is fraud used to move people from one place to another, that is the kind of thing that does trigger potential state or federal trafficking laws.”