The group of immigrants who were flown to Martha’s Vineyard from Texas on chartered planes paid for by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are asking federal court to prevent Florida from relocating more people.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, the complaint argues DeSantis and accomplices “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 relief that we are seeking is injunctive in nature. It is to stop Florida from continuing with this practice of relocating immigrants,” said Iván Espinoza Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, in an interview with GBH News. “We are also looking for the court to declare these practices to be unlawful, unconstitutional.”
DeSantis' office commented late Tuesday night, claiming that "it is opportunistic that activists would use illegal immigrants for political theater." Communications director Taryn Fenske said the migrants willingly traveled to Massachusetts.
Lawyers for Civil Rights filed the suit with the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts on behalf of the migrants, who are seeking class action status, and Alianza Americas, a transnational coalition of more than 50 immigrant rights organizations.
“It’s really important for the court to understand the lived experience of the immigrants who have been subjected to these abusive practices, the harrowing experiences that they have survived,” Espinoza Madrigal said.
“We want that kind of abuse to the stop,” Oscar Chacón, the executive director of Alianza Americas, added in a Tuesday evening interview. “We believe people, especially people who have applied for asylum in the U.S. because they fear for their lives, should not be treated that way. It is irresponsible and it is contrary to the most basic humanitarian instincts that have historically characterized the American people.”
The complaint gave several examples of individual migrants being impacted, using pseudonyms for privacy.
Yanet Doe, her husband, 11-year-old son and family members were “induced by defendants” to board the plane. According to Doe, the family fled Venezuela around July and more recently crossed the border, surrendering themselves to federal agents soon after.
They were released by immigration officials and traveled to a San Antonio shelter. Outside the shelter, they were approached by a woman who identified herself as “Perla,” who convinced them to go to a hotel with her.
They were eventually told they would go to Washington, D.C., or New York. It was only on the plane they were told they would be landing on an island in Massachusetts. The migrants say they were falsely told they’d receive employment, housing, educational opportunities and other assistance upon their arrival.
“Upon arrival in Martha’s Vineyard, Plaintiff Yanet Doe felt helpless, defrauded, and desperate. She started crying. She felt anxious and confused,” the complaint said.
Doe will have to appear in Texas for immigration check-ins starting in October, and she worries that an immigration judge will order her and her entire family deported if they’re not present, according to the complaint.
"The transportation of the immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard was done on a voluntary basis. The immigrants were homeless, hungry, and abandoned – and these activists didn’t care about them then," wrote DeSantis' communications director Fenske. "Florida’s program gave them a fresh start in a sanctuary state and these individuals opted to take advantage of chartered flights to Massachusetts." Cities in Massachusetts are known to have policies that bar local law enforcement from working with federal immigration officials to deport migrants, but the Bay State as a whole is not a sanctuary state.
The suit comes a day after Texas' Bexar County sheriff, Javier Salazar, announced he’s launching an investigation into the transport, saying the migrants had been “preyed upon” and “unceremoniously stranded” on Martha’s Vineyard.
Florida’s government spent $615,000 on the two chartered flights and has at least another $11 million budgeted to relocate migrants out of state. DeSantis' office included a scan of a document they claimed immigrants signed before boarding the plane, but the state, "MA" is handwritten, not typed.
Lawyers for Civil Rights called for Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins to pursue a criminal investigation against DeSantis.
“Our office continues to review all information relevant to this situation,” wrote Chloe Gotsis, a spokeswoman for Healey. “We are in touch with our federal and state partners, along with attorneys representing the migrants, as we gather facts and evaluate all legal options.”
Rollins’ office declined to comment.
A court date has not yet been set in the case, meaning next steps are up in the air.
The nearly 50 migrants are now at Joint Base Cape Cod. They traveled there Friday, two days after landing on Martha’s Vineyard, when given the option by the state.
Other migrants are already seeking help in Boston hospitals due to a similar busing effort by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, which has sent thousands of people to cities such as New York City and Washington, D.C. While he wasn’t involved with the Martha’s Vineyard flights, Abbott is using DeSantis’ move as a rallying cry to get other Republican governors to send migrants north to areas where elected officials have expressed support for immigration.