Texas law enforcement authorities said Monday they are opening an investigation into how 48 Venezuelan migrants were “lured” last week to board flights from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha‘s Vineyard under a plan orchestrated by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for “nothing more … than a photo op.”
“Our understanding is that a Venezuelan migrant was paid what we would call a bird dog fee to recruit approximately 50 migrants from the area around a migrant Resource Center … in San Antonio,” Bexar County, Texas Sheriff Javier Salazar told reporters.
“As we understand it, 48 migrants were lured — I will use the word lured — under false pretenses into staying at a hotel for a couple of days,” said Salazar, who said the migrants were then taken by airplane at a certain point and flown to Florida before continuing to Massachusetts.
Response from Gainesville:Mayor Lauren Poe tells Ron DeSantis administration to send migrants, $12 million to Gainesville
Salazar, an elected Democrat from south Texas, said the migrants were taken out of Texas to Martha’s Vineyard “under false pretenses,” noting they were “promised work (and) promised the solution to several of their problems.”
“They were taken to Martha’s Vineyard from what from what we can gather for nothing more, for little more than a photo op, video op, and then they were unceremoniously stranded in Martha’s Vineyard,” said Salazar.
In announcing the investigation, he encouraged anyone who was impacted or knew someone impacted to email the Bexar Sheriffs Department, email@example.com.
Florida’s Republican governor has told reporters that he plans to continue paying the cost of transporting migrants detained at the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas to keep them from settling in Florida and sending them to “sanctuary cities” around the country. He also said he wants to call attention to the Biden administration’s “reckless” border security policies.
Last Wednesday, without informing local officials in Texas or Massachusetts, DeSantis ordered the state to shuttle the migrants aboard two chartered airplanes from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard.
“I got $12 million to use, so we are going to use it,” he said. “Because I think people want to see that we’re actually standing up and trying to protect the state against (President) Biden’s really, really reckless policies.”
The $12 million refers to money the Florida Legislature approved earlier this year to pay the cost of relocating undocumented immigrants in Florida. DeSantis paid $615,000 to Destin-based Vertol Systems, a transportation services company, through the Department of Transportation, which oversees the $12 million program to relocate “unauthorized aliens” from the state.
“We want to make sure that [Florida] taxpayers are not having tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people coming in illegally,” said DeSantis.
In response to Salazar’s announcement of an investigation, DeSantis spokesperson Taryn Fenske said “immigrants have been more than willing to leave Bexar County after being abandoned, homeless, and ‘left to fend for themselves,’”
“Florida gave them an opportunity to seek greener pastures in a sanctuary jurisdiction that offered greater resources for them, as we expected,” Fenske added.
Ron DeSantis, Texas Governor Greg Abbott blasted by White House
The White House has blasted DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, both Republicans, for their “political stunt” and for using migrants as “political pawns.” It said a new aggressive campaign against human smugglers had netted thousands of arrests in recent months and that border patrol agents had “removed or expelled” more people than any previous year.
DeSantis said his plan took shape last year when he took a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border to help Abbott deal with the border crisis.
DeSantis said he and his staff learned that 40% of migrants apprehended at the border expressed a desire to move to Florida. The governor explained it was more effective to intercept migrants at the border than it was to track them down when they arrived in Florida as individuals or in small groups.
“If they get in a car with two other people, there’s no way we’re going to be able to detect that,” said DeSantis.
So, said DeSantis, they hired a contractor to identify migrants likely headed to Florida and offer free transportation to “sanctuary jurisdictions.”
“And so they went from Texas to Florida, to Martha’s Vineyard in the flight,” DeSantis said.
Venezuelan migrant: ‘I simply feel misled’
Several Venezuelans who landed in Martha’s Vineyard, told their immigration attorneys and journalists that they had been promised jobs and housing if they boarded the flights. They were not told they were going to New England.
One Venezuelan, Pedro Luis Torrelaba, 36, said he was promised work, food and housing and thought he was going to New York.
“I am not a victim,” he said. “I simply feel misled because they told a lie and it has come to nothing.”
Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Washington-based civil rights group, said the migrants were given red folders with fake documents promising jobs and housing.
“It was all just a terrible lie,” Garcia said, adding that he plans to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.
DeSantis said none were misled or misguided when approached by the contractor in Texas who was hired to “profile” those migrants most likely to want to travel to Florida.
He rejected claims of critics that the Venezuelan migrants were kept in the dark about their final destination.
The contractor gave migrants a release form to sign, along with a packet that included a map of Martha’s Vineyard, said DeSantis, who said it was “all voluntary.”
“It’s obvious that’s where they were going,” he said.
He said the migrants were treated “well with meals and everything” for their air trip to Martha’s Vineyard.
“Our view is you’ve got to deal with it at the source and, if they’re intending to come to Florida, and many of them are intending to come to Florida, [this is] our best way to make sure that they end up in a sanctuary jurisdiction.”
DeSantis said Florida now has the “infrastructure in place” to steer future migrants from Florida to “sanctuary cities.”
“There needs to be accountability and we need to make sure that we know you people stand for secure border that they want to make sure that Florida is not going to be a sanctuary state.”
In Massachusetts, state Rep. Dylan Fernandes said he has requested a federal human trafficking probe of DeSantis. “We are requesting that the Department of Justice open an investigation to hold DeSantis and others accountable for these inhumane acts,” he tweeted on Sunday. “Not only is it morally criminal, there are legal implications around fraud, kidnapping, deprivation of liberty, and human trafficking.”
Sergio Bustos is Enterprise/Politics Editor for Florida’s Gannett/USA Today Network. He’s based in South Florida. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org