Two planes with 48 migrants, most of whom fled Venezuela in the wake of that country’s political and economic collapse, landed unannounced on the island of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts on 14 September.
Days later, another Texas flight bound for coastal Delaware was due to land roughly 20 miles from President Joe Biden’s beach home.
The flights originating from San Antonio – roughly 2,000 miles from their coastal destinations – were arranged by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s administration, supported by a $12m plan in his state’s budget.
After crossing the US-Mexico border and processing by federal and state authorities, at least one group of migrants – including families with small children – were awaiting their asylum hearings to play out in court before they were allegedly lured to cross-country flights with false promises of employment, financial aid and housing, among other benefits, with official-looking government brochures.
Community groups, faith-based organisations and state and local agencies rushed to migrants’ support after their flights landed, what Governor DeSantis has pledged will be the first of many until he “exhausts” millions of dollars earmarked for his project.
After two nights in a church shelter, migrants who arrived in Massachusetts were moved to a larger shelter operation on the mainland, with separate rooms and medical and legal support. State officials report that the families are in “good health and good spirits,” with access to legal services, humanitarian aid and interpreters.
But so much remains unclear about the migrants’ journey, how Florida officials are identifying and collecting migrants in other states as part of the Republican governor’s state-sanctioned plans to send them to Democratic-leading states and cities, and how funding earmarked for his scheme is paying for it from several states away.
Who is paying someone to fly migrants across the country, and what happened to the aviation firm hired by Florida?
Florida’s Department of Transportation paid an Oregon-based aviation firm $615,000 on 8 September, according to state records.
The purpose: “RELOCATION PROGRAM OF UNAUTHORIZED ALIENS”.
One week later, a group of migrants were flown from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, for which Governor DeSantis has taken credit and defended.
Days later, the Vertol Systems Company’s website was no longer in operation.
State records show that Florida paid the company another $950,000 on 19 September, one day before a scheduled flight from San Antonio to Delaware.
In total, the state has paid Vertol Systems Company at least $1.56m for the state’s “relocation program of unauthorized aliens.”
Requests for comment from The Independent – including how the company uses state funds – have not been returned.
That $12m budget line – tucked into page 494 of a 518-page budget document – is supported by “interest earnings associated with the federal Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund,” a part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed into law by President Biden, with universal GOP opposition in Congress.
The governor himself even criticised the measure as “designed basically to bail out the poorly governed states.”
Roughly $350bn in state funding in the American Rescue Plan is intended to support state and local pandemic relief efforts and public health response and to keep government services running against economic strain.
Florida’s budget asserts that the state Department of Transportation “may, upon the receipt of at least two quotes, negotiate and enter into contracts with private parties, including common carriers, to implement the program” and “may enter into agreements with any applicable federal agency to implement the program.”
During legislative debate, Florida Democratic lawmakers questioned whether the plan was even legal.
In a letter to Republican leadership on 19 September, Florida Democratic lawmakers demanded their support to stop the “inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars before it occurs again.”
“This use of state funds is not what was intended or described in law, nor was it what was discussed in debate,” legislators Evan Jenne and Fentrice Driskell wrote.
Who is ‘Perla’ and who convinced migrants to board the flights?
Several migrants who arrived in Martha’s Vineyard and others near San Antonio’s Migrant Resource Center described a blonde woman who promised them jobs, housing, gift cards, family assistance and $200 in cash to help recruit other migrants to board flights bound for Massachusetts.
The passengers were told that the planes would be landing in Martha’s Vineyard, not Boston, only when the flight was in mid-air, according to Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights executive director Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal and litigation director Oren Sellstrom.
Sheriff says migrants were ‘lured’ onto flights to Massachusetts
In letters to US Attorney Rachael Rollins and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, Boston-area legal group Lawyers for Civil Rights alleged that “individuals, working in concert with the Florida governor, made numerous false promises to our clients, including … work opportunities, schooling for their children, and immigration assistance, in order to induce them to travel.”
Ardenis Nazareth told The New York Times that a woman named Perla offered him and 30 other migrants McDonald’s gift cards and a free flight.
Another man, identified as Luis, told Reuters that Perla offered him and his relatives work permits, English lessons, and support for his family for up to 90 days.
A 22-year-old man named Eduardo – who endured abductions and cartel threats on a dangerous journey from Venezeula with his wife and their seven-year-old daughter – told the Texas Tribune that he was promised help with rent and employment.
The city of San Antonio has advised migrants “not to accept rides or any other assistance from strangers” outside the centre.
The League of United Latin American Citizens, the largest Latino civil rights organisation in the nation, is also circulating “Wanted” fliers in the city for information leading to Perla’s identity.
The organisation has offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to her “identification, arrest and conviction.”
The group said she is wanted for “aiding and abetting in a conspiracy to have innocent refugees commit crimes by offering work” without legal work permits, “lying and deceiving” them while being used as “political props,” and “fraud and possible civil rights violations.”
“She promised them that they would get three months of work paid,” group’s national president, Domingo Garcia, told The Washington Post. “Under immigration law, they are here under parole. They have a court date. It is illegal for them to work. So she is enticing them to work which is a federal offense. She is enticing them to break the law.”
Who made the brochures?
Migrants who boarded planes bound for Martha’s Vineyard were handed a trifold brochure titled “Massachusetts Refugee Benefits,” with a front cover that includes a photograph of a Massachusetts Department of Transportation highway sign reading “Massachusetts Welcomes You” above an illustration of the state.
A phone number and website for the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants was printed on the back. The state agency supports resettlement programmes and works with community groups to provide assistance to newly arrived refugees.
But the agency had nothing to do with the flier. The flier was mocked up to look like an official programme from the agency, and falsely suggested that the migrants would be eligible for myriad benefits listed inside.
“These brochures are not ours and not sure who prints or distributes them, at this point,” office chief of staff Falah Hashem told The Independent.
Governor DeSantis told Fox News personality Sean Hannity on 19 September that the migrants had voluntarily signed up to board the planes bound for Massachusetts and “they all signed consent forms to go.”
“And then the vendor that is doing this for Florida provided them with a packet that had a map of Martha’s Vineyard. It had the numbers for different services on Martha’s Vineyard. And then it had numbers for the overall agencies in Massachusetts that handle things involving immigration and refugees,” he said.
A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to The Independent’s requests for comment about the brochures or questions about who made them.
Could DeSantis face any charges?
Immigration attorneys and at least one sheriff in Texas are leading efforts to hold the governor and his administration accountable for allegations of fraud and violations of migrants’ civil liberties.
Lawyers for Civil Rights has asked US Attorney Rachael Rollins and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey to open criminal investigations into the flights, alleging that “individuals, working in concert with the Florida governor, made numerous false promises to our clients, including of work opportunities, schooling for their children, and immigration assistance, in order to induce them to travel.”
The group’s federal lawsuit filed on behalf of three migrants who were on the Martha’s Vineyard flights also alleges a “fraudulent and discriminatory scheme” that targeted immigrants who were recently released from shelters with false promises of job opportunities, education and financial assistance before they landed on the island with only volunteered support from local groups and emergency assistance from state agencies.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar also has announced that his office is working with “attorneys who are representing the victims as well as advocacy organizations regarding this incident” and is “preparing to work with any federal agencies that have concurrent jurisdiction, should the need arise.”
His office is looking into whether migrants were fraudulently “lured” to boarding flights out of Texas.
“They have every right to be where they are, and I believe they were preyed upon – somebody came from out of state, preyed upon these people, lured them with promises of a better life, which is what they were absolutely looking for, with the knowledge that they were going to cling to whatever hope they could be offered … to just be exploited and hoodwinked into making this trip,” he said during a press conference 19 September.
In response to the sheriff’s announcement, the governor’s communications director Taryn Fensk said in a statement that Florida gave migrants “an opportunity to seek greener pastures in a sanctuary jurisdiction that offered greater resources for them, as we expected.”
“Unless the [Massachusetts National Guard] has abandoned these individuals, they have been provided accommodations, sustenance, clothing and more options to succeed following their unfair enticement into the United States, unlike the 53 immigrants who died in a truck found abandoned in Bexar County this June.”
Will DeSantis book more flights?
At a news conference on 16 September, the governor said the Martha’s Vineyard flights are “just the beginning” of his plans.
“We’ve got an infrastructure in place now. There’s going to be a lot more that’s happening,” he said.
“The legislature gave me $12m,” he added. “We’re going to spend every penny of that to make sure that we’re protecting the people of the state of Florida.”
Meanwhile, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has bused hundreds of migrants from his state to Chicago, Washington DC and New York City.
What happens next for the migrants and their asylum claims?
Immigration attorneys in Massachusetts are working with migrants who arrived at Joint Base Cape Cod, a large facility better equipped to house migrants who arrived in Martha’s Vineyard. Local school districts, aid groups and other agencies are also working with the families while attorneys are helping them with their asylum cases and other legal issues.
But immigration attorneys and advocates told The Independent that an already-complicated path to legal status for people seeking asylum in the US is made more complicated by moving people hundreds of miles away from where those cases originate.
Asylum claims can only be made while in the US. Migrants seeking asylum for humanitarian assistance or protection must first pass what is called a “credible threat” screening, after which – if eligible – they will receive a notice to appear before an immigration judge for consideration of those claims.
“There’s no doubt that there’s a continued need for humanitarian aid and assistance,” Matt Maiona, an immigration attorney in Boston and spokesperson for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told The Independent. “Those are the folks who can help not only with getting through the process but also to adjust, get to court, have their case reviewed, because … it’s a complicated system.”