A Boston-based legal group filed a class action lawsuit Tuesday against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that alleges a “fraudulent and illegal scheme” to transport nearly 50 Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Massachusetts violated Constitutional rights and federal law.
The lawsuit comes nearly a week after migrants landed on Martha’s Vineyard on two planes that originated in San Antonio, Texas, a trip for which DeSantis claimed credit and renewed a contentious national debate over immigration policy. The suit was filed in Massachusetts federal court by Lawyers for Civil Rights on behalf of some of the migrants and Alianza Americas, a network of organizations supporting immigrants in the United States.
Lawyers for Civil Rights said the migrants were “targeted and induced to board airplanes and cross state lines under false pretenses” and alleged DeSantis and his transportation secretary, Jared Perdue, “interfered with the orderly administration of the federal immigration system.”
“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 lawsuit reads. “This scheme involved the unidentified doe defendants, acting in concert with the named defendants, identifying and targeting class members by trolling streets outside of a migrant shelter in Texas and other similar locales, pretending to be good Samaritans offering humanitarian assistance.”
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DeSantis Communications Director Taryn Fenske said in a statement that “it is opportunistic that activists would use illegal immigrants for political theater.”
“If these activists spent even a fraction of this time and effort at the border, perhaps some accountability would be brought to the Biden Administration’s reckless border policies that entice illegal immigrants to make dangerous and often lethal journeys through Central America and put their lives in the hands of cartels and Coyotes,” Fenske said in a statement.
The lawsuit refers to five unnamed defendants who allegedly helped “target” the migrants and “induce” them onto flights to Massachusetts. The first defendant is described as a woman named “Perla” and the second “Emanuel” while defendants three through five “either participated in the inducement” of the migrants to “travel, coordinated and/or supported this scheme.”
The lawsuit alleges the unnamed defendants offered the migrants gift cards to gain their trust.
“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,” the lawsuit reads.
The unnamed defendants put the migrants in hotels for free, the lawsuit says, “sequestered away from the migrant center, and from the possibility of actual good Samaritans finding out how the class members were being abused.”
Florida public records show the Florida Department of Transportation paid $615,000 to Vertol Systems Company Inc. for a “relocation program of unauthorized aliens” a week before DeSantis claimed credit for flying migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.
The lawsuit alleges the migrants were told they were either flying to Boston or Washington, D.C. “which was completely false,” the suit says.
“These immigrants, who are pursuing the proper channels for lawful immigration status in the United States, experienced cruelty akin to what they fled in their home country,” the lawsuit says. “Defendants manipulated them, stripped them of their dignity, deprived them of their liberty, bodily autonomy, due process, and equal protection under law, and impermissibly interfered with the federal government’s exclusive control over immigration in furtherance of an unlawful goal and a personal political agenda.”
Fenske said the immigrants were transported to Martha’s Vineyard “on a voluntary basis.” Fenske provided in an email to MassLive a consent form where a person signs to “agree to be transported by the benefactor or its designated representative to locations outside of Texas, including in sanctuary states.”
“The immigrants were homeless, hungry, and abandoned — and these activists didn’t care about them then,” Fenske said in the statement. “Florida’s program gave them a fresh start in a sanctuary state and these individuals opted to take advantage of chartered flights to Massachusetts.”
Gov. Charlie Baker has pushed back against making Massachusetts a “sanctuary state” and previously signed onto a letter pushing for an “end to the national security crisis” at the border with 25 other governors.
He also opposed legislation dubbed the Safe Communities Act that would have restricted local and state law enforcement officials from asking about a person’s immigration status and vetoed a bill — the state Legislature later overturned his objection — creating a pathway to a driver’s license for immigrants without legal status in Massachusetts.
Alianza America Executive Director Oscar Chacòn said DeSantis used the migrants to advance a “hate-driven agenda.”
“That is why we have taken the steps to legally challenge what we view as not only a morally reprehensible action but what we believe is also illegal,” Chacòn said in a statement accompanying the suit.
The decision to send the group of migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard drew national attention to a small island just a few miles off the coast of Massachusetts, where the year-round population hovers around 17,000.
Officials there have said they were only given a 20-minutes heads up before two planes landed Wednesday afternoon at a regional airport. DeSantis claimed credit shortly after their arrival.
In a statement last week, DeSantis Communications Director Taryn Fenske said the move was part of the “state’s relocation program to transport illegal immigrants to sanctuary destinations.”
“States like Massachusetts, New York, and California will better facilitate the care of these individuals who they have invited into our country by incentivizing illegal immigration through their designation as ‘sanctuary states’ and support for the Biden Administration’s open border policies,” Fenske said.
The Florida Legislature funded a relocation program with $12 million over the summer and authorized the Department of Transportation “to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state consistent with federal law.”
A provision in the most recent Florida state budget, where the funding was approved, defines an unauthorized alien as “a person who is unlawfully present in the United States according to the terms of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act.”
Top Florida Democrats have asked their House speaker and budget chief to formally object to the spending, which they can do under a provision of state law.
Florida House Minority Leader Rep. Evan Jenne, a Dania Beach Democrat, said taxpayers were left to foot the bill.
“These folks weren’t in the state of Florida. They were in Texas. They weren’t coming to the state of Florida, but that money was spent on something that will not make Floridians any safer,” Jenne said at a Monday morning press conference. “It is not going to make the cost of living go down, which we are experiencing a crisis right now in the state.”
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