Attorneys representing more than 30 migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard last week are asking state and federal prosecutors to open a criminal investigation of what they called a “shameful political stunt” by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
In a pair of Saturday letters to U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights said operatives “working in concert” with DeSantis deceived the migrants and deprived them of their liberty by lying to them.
“While we are working to protect our clients’ rights in immigration proceedings and exploring remedies for civil rights violations, we also strongly believe that criminal laws were broken by the perpetrators of this stunt,” the letters from Lawyers for Civil Rights Executive Director Iván Espinoza-Madrigal and Litigation Director Oren Sellstrom said.
“We, therefore, ask that you open a criminal investigation into this matter.”
The group said its clients were “targeted” based on their race and national origin and “induced to board airplanes and cross state lines under false pretenses,” including that they would fly to Boston for work opportunities, schooling for their children and immigration assistance.
“It was only when the flight was in mid-air that they were informed they would be flown to Martha’s Vineyard, rather than to Boston as many had been told,” the letters said.
“Once the planes landed, those who had induced our clients to travel under these false pretenses disappeared, leaving our clients to learn that the offers of assistance had all been a ruse to exploit them for political purposes.
“This conduct deprived our clients of their liberty by deception. It interfered with their ability to comply with federal immigration obligations, such as attendance at hearings and check-ins. The perpetrators … preyed on the vulnerabilities of our clients — many of whom had suffered deep trauma in their home countries and on their journeys to the United States — and exploited this vulnerability to win trust through false promises.
“These actions were coordinated and orchestrated. Many of our clients were put up in hotels — paid for by those making the false representations — until flights could be coordinated and there were enough people to fill the planes. This type of conspiracy to deprive our clients of their liberty and civil rights must be thoroughly investigated for violations of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act and all other applicable criminal laws.”
The group said it is “working closely” with immigration attorneys, including Susan Church, Rachel Self, and Julio Henriquez, and has gathered photographic evidence to help identify the operatives involved and “help in a criminal investigation in any way that we can.”
DeSantis’ administration chartered two planes to transport migrants of Colombian and Venezuelan origin to Martha’s Vineyard on Wednesday. On Friday, Gov. Charlie Baker said the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency would move the migrants to a military base on Cape Cod for housing.
According to Geoffrey Freeman, director of Martha’s Vineyard airport that received the planes, the flights originated in Texas. If that is accurate, the DeSantis administration may have violated its own rules.
Funding for the flights came from a $12 million earmark in Florida’s 2022 state budget of nearly $110 billion, which the Legislature approved in March. The language of that budget item specified the funds were to be used for “a program to facilitate the transportation of unauthorized aliens from this state consistent with federal law.”