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Asylum-seekers sit outside the San Antonio Migrant Resource Center on September 19, 2022. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has used the false promise of refugee resettlement benefits to lure immigrants onto flights from the center in Texas to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.

Asylum-seekers sit outside the San Antonio Migrant Resource Center on September 19, 2022. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has used the false promise of refugee resettlement benefits to lure immigrants onto flights from the center in Texas to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. (Photo: Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images)

Launching Criminal Probe, Texas Sheriff Says Migrants Were 'Preyed Upon' With DeSantis Flights

"Forty-eight migrants were lured," said Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, "under false pretenses."

Kenny Stancil

A Texas sheriff has launched a criminal investigation into interstate flights of asylum-seekers organized recently by Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who immigrant rights groups and legal experts have accused of human rights abuses.

"I believe there is some criminal activity involved here," Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said Monday at a press conference, though he did not mention DeSantis, who is suspected of using the false promise of refugee resettlement benefits to beguile 48 Venezuelan asylum-seekers onto flights from the San Antonio Migrant Resource Center to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.

"But at present," added Salazar, "we are trying to keep an open mind and we are going to investigate to find out what exact laws were broken if that does turn out to be the case."

The elected Democratic official "railed against the flights that took off in his city as political posturing," The Associated Press reported. "But he said investigators had so far only spoken to attorneys representing some of the migrants and did not name any potential suspects who might face charges."

Julio Henriquez, an attorney who has met with several of the people who were flown from San Antonio to Martha's Vineyard on two planes last Wednesday, said last week that the asylum-seekers were lied to about their destination and "had no idea of where they were going or where they were" when they ended up on the wealthy Massachusetts island.

According to AP:

In San Antonio, a Latina woman approached migrants at a city-run shelter and put them up at a nearby La Quinta Inn, where she visited daily with food and gift cards, Henriquez said. She promised jobs and three months of housing in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.

The woman, who introduced herself to migrants as Perla, promised jobs, housing, and support for their immigration cases, said Oren Sellstrom of Lawyers for Civil Rights, which offered free consultations.

In Salazar's words, the asylum-seekers were "preyed upon" and "hoodwinked."

"Our understanding is that a Venezuelan migrant was paid what we would call a 'bird-dog fee' to recruit approximately 50 migrants from an area around a migrant resource center... in San Antonio," said Salazar. "Forty-eight migrants were lured... under false pretenses into staying at a hotel for a couple of days."

"At a certain point they were shuttled to an airplane, where they were flown to Florida, and then eventually flown to Martha's Vineyard, again under false pretenses," he continued. "They were promised work, they were promised the solution to several of their problems."

When the planes stopped in the Florida Panhandle, migrants were given a map of Massachusetts and a brochure, a copy of which was obtained by journalist Judd Legum.

As Legum noted:

A brochure distributed to migrants says that they will be eligible for numerous benefits in Massachusetts, including "8 months cash assistance," "assistance with housing," "food," "clothing," "job placement," "registering children for school," and many other benefits.

None of this is true. 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 document is evidence that suggests that the flights were not just a callous political stunt but potentially a crime.

"DeSantis clearly does not know the legal difference between refugees (who are eligible for resettlement benefits) and asylum applicants (who are not)," Matt Cameron, a Boston-based immigration attorney, told Legum. "It's legally no different than promising someone who you know to have had no military service that they will be eligible for veterans benefits."

The brochures "are either evidence of criminal intent or criminal stupidity," Cameron added.

DeSantis, meanwhile, has asserted that travel to Martha's Vineyard was voluntary, ignoring claims that asylum-seekers were lied to about their destination and evidence that they were lied to about their eligibility for refugee resettlement benefits.

Not only has Florida's governor defended his move to snatch up migrants in Texas, but he also vowed last week to keep shipping more of them to "sanctuary" jurisdictions he deems pro-immigrant.

"Our view is that you've got to deal with it at the source, and if they're intending to come to Florida or many of them are intending to come to Florida, that's our best way to make sure they end up in a sanctuary," DeSantis said Friday.

In response to the criminal probe launched by Salazar, DeSantis' office issued a statement alleging that they had done migrants a favor.

"Immigrants have been more than willing to leave Bexar County after being abandoned, homeless, and 'left to fend for themselves,'" DeSantis spokesperson Taryn Fenske said. "Florida gave them an opportunity to seek greener pastures in a sanctuary jurisdiction that offered greater resources for them, as we expected."

Based on the information gathered so far, said Salazar, four dozen asylum-seekers were involuntarily transported across the country for "little more than a photo-op, video-op," after which they were "unceremoniously stranded in Martha's Vineyard."

Bexar County's probe comes as Massachusetts state Rep. Dylan Fernandes (D), U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), and others continue to push the U.S. Department of Justice to open a federal investigation.

DeSantis is following in the footsteps of Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has bused at least 8,000 migrants to Washington, D.C., since April—including hundreds to Vice President Kamala Harris' home in recent days—and roughly 2,200 to New York and another 300 to Chicago, with some passengers requiring hospitalization for dehydration and other ailments.

The pair of far-right governors, progressive radio host and author Thom Hartmann wrote over the weekend, "should be looking at jail time or serious civil fines for engaging in this heartless, racist sport."


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