Lawsuit charges DeSantis with civil rights violations in flying migrants to Massachusetts

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The complaint against Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and others says they 'designed and executed a premeditated, fraudulent, and illegal scheme centered on exploiting' vulnerable asylum-seekers for their own political, personal and financial gain.

The Boston-based legal group Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a federal civil rights class-action lawsuit on Sept. 20 against Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in response to DeSantis' airlift of 48 asylum-seekers from Texas to the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, the previous week. 

The complaint was filed on behalf of three anonymous immigrants "and all others similarly situated," and Alianza Americas, a transnational immigrants' rights organization, against DeSantis; Jared Perdue, secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation; the state of Florida; the Department of Transportation itself; and five unnamed individuals. It charges:

Plaintiffs have led lives inflicted by violence, instability, insecurity, and abuse of trust by corrupt government officials that most Americans could hardly conceive of. They fled to the United States in a desperate attempt to protect themselves and their families from gang, police, and state-sponsored violence and the oppression of political dissent. To put it simply, Plaintiffs, and the class of similarly situated individuals they seek to represent, are vulnerable in a way and to an extent that almost defies verbal description. They are as deserving of dignity and empathy as anyone among us.


In or around September 2022, Defendants and their unidentified accomplices 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 complaint describes the actions taken after 48 immigrants, most of them from Venezuela, had crossed the border into Texas and presented themselves to federal immigration officials as asylum-seekers.

As the complaint notes, "Unless and until determined otherwise after the due process to which they are entitled, Plaintiffs are authorized by federal immigration officials to remain in the United States."

It alleges:

After luring Plaintiffs by exploiting their most basic needs, the Doe Defendants then made false promises and false representations that if Plaintiffs and class members were willing to board airplanes to other states, they would receive employment, housing, educational opportunities, and other like assistance upon their arrival. Next, the Defendants put class members up for free in hotels, sequestered away from the migrant center, and from the possibility of actual good Samaritans finding out how the class members were being abused.

In one example, the complaint states:

On September 14, 2022, at 7 a.m., Defendant Doe #1 gathered several dozen people, including Plaintiff Jesus Doe, to sign a document in order to receive a $10 McDonald's gift card. She did not explain what the document stated, and it was not completely translated to Spanish: an entire paragraph about liability and transport was not translated at all, and language specifying that the journey would take place from Texas to Massachusetts was not translated at all either.

DeSantis used at least $615,000 of Florida taxpayers' money on airplane charters to transport the immigrants across state lines. The airlift was a coordinated effort between DeSantis and Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who has himself been sending busloads of immigrants to Washington, D.C., and New York City; both governors have regularly criticized President Joe Biden's immigration and border policies.

Authorities in Massachusetts were not informed by Florida officials that the asylum-seekers were being sent to the state; however, according to a press release issued by Lawyers for Civil Rights on Sept. 20, the organization "has been on the ground since the migrants arrived helping with coordination pro bono legal assistance and mobilization of community support. LCR assisted in escorting the migrants off of the island to the base in Cape Cod." The migrants have been moved to the Joint Base Cape Cod military facility.  

Miguel Mendizabal, director of the Immigrants' Rights Center law firm in Orlando, told the American Independent Foundation: "The immigrants have NTAs [notices to appear] and were paroled by Customs and Border Patrol. Because they may have been lied to and transported from one state to another, they may have a claim to a U-visa, kidnapping, false imprisonment, trafficking, etc. Some of the Venezuelans may be eligible for Temporary Protected Status, depending on the date of entry, and employment authorization." 

According to the Department of Homeland Security, "The U nonimmigrant status (U visa) is set aside for victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity." 

Notices to appear are documents directing a person to appear at a specific time before an immigration judge. According to Michelle Mittelstadt, communications and public affairs director for the Migration Policy Institute, their removal to Massachusetts could negatively impact the migrants' asylum cases. Mittelstadt told TAIF: "Some of the Venezuelans flown there had hearings set in immigration court just days later in places as far away as Tacoma, Washington, and even back in San Antonio, where they were initially flown from. Not being able to get to initial court hearings could have very adverse consequences against the migrants."

Sheriff Javier Salazar of Bexar County, of which San Antonio is the county seat, announced on Sept. 19 that he had opened a criminal investigation into the airlift. He told CNN that the allegations he has heard thus far are "disgusting and a violation of human rights" and that his probe would cooperate with federal agencies, including the White House. 

Although most of the backlash to DeSantis' move came from Democratic lawmakers and immigrant organizations, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, called it "a really lousy thing to do." He told reporters on Sept. 20: "I don't know [if a crime was committed]. It's up to the authorities on the ground there to figure out what did and didn't happen. I am very glad that the sheriff chose to open an investigation."

The Immigrants' Rights Center's Mendizabal foresaw negative blowback for DeSantis from the Venezuelan community in Florida: "Unfortunately for DeSantis, his ire against Venezuelan emigrants, who, like Cuban emigrants, are fleeing the communism/totalitarianism of Maduro, were perhaps the worst group to pick your fight with if you are the governor of Florida."

According to Florida Politics, Charlie Crist, the Democrats' nominee to challenge DeSantis in the November general election, slammed DeSantis on Sept. 21.

Crist charged: "Ron — you trafficked these people. You lied to them. You spent our tax money flying them across the country. ... There is no evidence that these refugees ever sought to come to Florida. So Ron had to trick them to participate in this political stunt."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.