The smoking gun in Martha's Vineyard
Popular Information has obtained documentary evidence that migrants from Venezuela were provided with false information to convince them to board flights chartered by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R). The documents suggest that the flights were not just a callous political stunt but potentially a crime.
Last Wednesday, two planes landed in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, and dropped off about 50 migrants from Venezuela. DeSantis quickly took credit. The migrants were used as political pawns in the hopes of provoking a negative reaction from a liberal community.
"When people are brought to their front door, they go berserk," DeSantis said. "Their virtue signaling is a fraud." But the people in Martha's Vineyard did not go berserk. Instead, they rallied together to provide shelter, food, clothing, and other necessities for the group. On Friday, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (R) facilitated their voluntary relocation to Joint Base Cape Cod, which is "a safe temporary accommodation appropriate for the specific needs of families and individuals."
DeSantis reportedly sent a videographer along for the ride, and Fox News obtained "exclusive footage of the migrants’ arrival."
In the aftermath of the flights, a key issue of contention is whether the migrants boarded the flights freely and voluntarily. While DeSantis and his administration repeatedly referred to the migrants as "illegal immigrants," the migrants surrendered to immigration officials after crossing the border into Texas. They are now seeking asylum from the repressive authoritarian regime in Venezuela. The migrants are legally permitted to remain in the United States while their cases are being considered by immigration courts.
So these migrants are able to voluntarily travel within the United States. But many of the migrants told reporters that they were misled about the nature of the flights. Several migrants told NPR they were told the flight was going to Boston, not Martha's Vineyard. According to the migrants, a woman who identified herself as Perla also said that, if they traveled to Boston, they could receive "expedited work papers."
The allegation that the migrants were misled is legally significant. It would mean that the flights were not just heartless, but potentially criminal. If the migrants were misled, the scheme to transport them to Martha's Vineyard could constitute fraud, false imprisonment, or kidnapping. "There is absolutely the possibility of both civil and criminal liability if people were lied to about where they were going [or] what they were going to get when they got there," lawyer Susan Church told Politico.
DeSantis has been adamant that the migrants were not misled. He claims that migrants were provided with a map showing the destination was Martha's Vineyard and describes the flights as "all voluntary." Appearing on Fox News on Sunday Morning, Florida Lt. Governor Jeanette Nunez (R) called allegations that the migrants were misled "categorically false."
Popular Information, however, has obtained a brochure that was provided to the migrants who ultimately agreed to the flights. It was provided to Popular Information by Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR), a Boston-based legal organization that represents 30 of the migrants. The brochure says that migrants who arrive in Massachusetts will be eligible for numerous benefits, including "8 months cash assistance," "assistance with housing," "food," "clothing," "transportation to job interviews," "job training," "job placement," "registering children for school," "assistance applying for Social Security cards," and many other benefits.
None of this, however, is true.
Matt Cameron, a Boston-based immigration attorney, explained that the benefits described in the brochure are resettlement benefits available to refugees who have been referred by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and authorized to live in the United States. These benefits are not available in Massachusetts to the migrants who boarded the flights, who are still in the process of seeking asylum.
The migrants who boarded the planes "absolutely do not have access to cash, housing, and other resettlement benefits which are provided through both federal funds and partnerships with faith-based [organizations]," Cameron said.
The brochure, which is crudely designed to resemble a government document, does not explain that these benefits described are only available to specially designated refugees.
According to some of the migrants, the benefits described in the brochure were also promised verbally by Perla to lure them onto the planes chartered by DeSantis. “[T]hey told us that they were going to help us with the rent, to get a job, that was the only option left to us,” one migrant, Eduardo Linares, told the Texas Tribune. (Linares ultimately declined to board the flight.)
There could be real consequences for migrants who were convinced to board the flight under false pretenses. Seeking asylum is an "often years-long process through immigration courts that requires [migrants] to check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement periodically." Some migrants now find themselves thousands of miles away from where they need to report for their next check-in. A missed appointment can "be detrimental to their case."
On Saturday, LCR wrote to U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, calling on them to open a formal investigation. "Individuals, working in concert with State officials, including the Florida Governor, made numerous false promises to LCR’s clients — including of work opportunities, schooling for their children, and immigration assistance — in order to induce them to travel," LCR said in the letter. "[T]hose who had induced our clients to travel under these false pretenses disappeared, leaving our clients to learn that the offers of assistance had all been a ruse to exploit them for political purposes."
DeSantis' office did not respond to a request for comment about the brochure.