Sept. 19 (UPI) — Lawyers representing 30 migrants sent by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to Martha’s Vineyard last week are calling on federal and state prosecutors to open criminal investigations into what they call a “political stunt.”
Lawyers for Civil Rights sent letters Saturday evening to U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins for the district of Massachusetts and the state’s attorney general, Maura Healey, asking them to formally open criminal investigations after two chartered planes with 50 migrants onboard were flown Wednesday from Texas and through Florida to Martha’s Vineyard.
DeSantis has said his state paid for the flights under his so-called immigration relocation program in an effort to “insulate” Florida from the impacts of the federal government’s immigration policies.
The attorneys arrived in Martha’s Vineyard on Thursday to meet with the migrants, and told the prosecutors in their letters that they “strongly believe” criminal laws were broken.
“Our clients were induced to board airplanes and cross state lines under false pretenses,” LCR Executive Director Ivan Spinoza-Madrigal and Litigation Director Oren Sellstrom wrote in the letters. “Individuals, working in concert with the Florida governor, made numerous false promises to our clients, including of work opportunities, schooling for their children and immigration assistance, in order to induct them to travel.”
The letters state the migrants were only told mid-flight that they were being taken to Martha’s Vineyard and not Boston as they were informed prior to boarding the planes. And once landing on the island, those who convinced them to board the planes “disappeared,” the lawyers said, leaving their clients to learn that the offers of assistance were untrue.
“This conduct deprived our clients of their liberty by deception. It interfered with their ability to comply with federal immigration obligations, such as attendance at hearings and check-ins. The perpetrators targeted our clients based on race and national origin in order to make the political point they wanted,” the letters said.
The migrants were also put up in hotels until the flights could be coordinated in what the lawyers described as a “conspiracy to deprive our clients of their liberty and civil rights.”
“They preyed on the vulnerability of our clients — many of whom had suffered deep trauma in their home countries and on their journeys to the United States — and exploited this vulnerability to win trust through false promises.”
Since Wednesday, DeSantis has repeatedly defended the action with his office telling UPI in a statement over the weekend that the relocation program aims to interdict human smugglers, traffickers and other criminals as well as prevent irregular immigration in Florida.
The Republican governor has said he has $12 million for this relocation plan, with state records indicating Florida paid $615,000 to charter last week’s flights.
On Saturday, he said during a press conference that those flown to Martha’s Vineyard were identified in Texas as wanting to go to Florida and were offered free transportation to “sanctuary jurisdictions” instead.
He said that there will likely be more migrants sent north by busses and planes.
“I’ll tell you this: the legislator gave me $12 million. We’re going to be spending every penny of that to make sure that we’re protecting the people of the state of Florida,” he said.
The letters were sent by Lawyers for Civil Rights amid mounting calls for DeSantis and others to be prosecuted.
Massachusetts State Rep. Dylan Fernandes said in a statement that he has spoken with Rollins who informed him that she is “pushing” for a response from the Department of Justice on opening an investigation.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom late last week also “strongly urged” Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate if kidnapping and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act charges could be applied in this case.