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Migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard file class-action lawsuit against DeSantis

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/19/2022 Amy Wang
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A group of Venezuelan migrants who were flown from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard last week — allegedly after being falsely promised work and other services — have filed a class-action lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and other officials who arranged the flights, saying the officials used fraud and misrepresentation to persuade them to travel across state lines.

The migrants said they were approached outside a shelter in San Antonio by people “acting in concert” with the Florida officials “pretending to be good Samaritans offering humanitarian assistance,” according to a copy of the complaint.

The supposed Good Samaritans told the migrants that if they were willing to board airplanes to other states, they would receive employment, housing, educational opportunities and other assistance, the complaint alleged.

“Defendants rounded up and sequestered the individual Plaintiffs and other class members in hotel rooms while they gathered enough of them to fill two planes and carry out their scheme,” the complaint stated, adding that the migrants were sequestered so they could not discuss the plans with anyone else.

The complaint says the migrants were taken to a private airstrip, where they boarded two planes Sept. 14. Just before the flights landed on Martha’s Vineyard, each migrant was given “a shiny, red folder” that included official-looking materials, including a brochure titled “Massachusetts Refugee Benefits,” according to the complaint.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) at an event in Bradenton, Fla. on Tuesday. © Thomas Simonetti/For The Washington Post Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) at an event in Bradenton, Fla. on Tuesday.

“Once the individual Plaintiffs and class members landed, it became clear that the promises made to induce them on the planes were in fact bold-faced lies,” the complaint stated. “Defendants completely abandoned the class members. They did not travel with the class members or connect them to or arrange for any services on arrival.”

The migrants are seeking unspecified damages, as well as the cost of their legal fees, for emotional and economic harm.

The day after the migrants arrived in Martha’s Vineyard, DeSantis announced that he had arranged for their transportation — part of an ongoing campaign by him and other Republican governors to send migrants to Democrat-heavy cities such as Washington, New York and Chicago to publicize soaring numbers of crossings this year on the southern border.

Democrats and immigration advocates decried the incident as a crass political stunt; the White House slammed DeSantis and other Republican governors “using migrants as political pawns” as “shameful … reckless and just plain wrong.”

“There is a process that is in place. And what they are doing is illegal stunt, is a political stunt,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said last week. “And it’s really just disrespectful to humanity.”

Jean-Pierre referred questions about whether the Biden administration would take legal action to the Justice Department.

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The class-action lawsuit is the latest in the legal developments that have followed the political fallout. On Monday, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office announced that it had opened an investigation into the reported pretenses under which the migrants from the San Antonio shelter were convinced to board planes.

“They feel that they were deceived in being taken from Bexar County — from San Antonio, Texas — to where they eventually ended up,” Sheriff Javier Salazar (D) told CNN on Tuesday. “They feel like that was done through deceptive means. That could be a crime here in Texas and we will handle it as such.”

In a statement, Salazar said his office was also working with private attorneys representing the victims, as well as advocacy organizations, and was prepared to work “with any federal agencies that have concurrent jurisdiction, should the need arise.”

“They were promised a solution to several of their problems,” Salazar said Monday. “They were taken to Martha’s Vineyard, from what we can gather, for little more than a photo op, video op, and then they were unceremoniously stranded in Martha’s Vineyard.”

Requests for comment made late Monday to DeSantis’s communications office were not answered.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said he spoke with the sheriff about his decision to investigate.

“Our thinking was early on if they were lured under false pretenses, it could be a crime,” Wolff said. “If you think about what smugglers do, it’s not much different.”

He said it wasn’t clear whether the recruiters could be connected to DeSantis, but, “if it turns out things were done wrong, he could be held responsible. He instigated it.”

Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Lori Rozsa, Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff and Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.

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