Sheriff investigates DeSantis’ flight for immigrants as lawyers claim the flight was deceptive

The mayor of Texas said Monday that he is opening a criminal investigation into the trip of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to Martha’s Vineyard as the stunt continues to draw criticism from Democrats and even some Republicans and DeSantis defends what he calls a protest against border policies.

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar announced the investigation Monday night, saying his office believed the immigrants brought to the Massachusetts island on September 14 were lured on false pretenses, which DeSantis denies.

“What pisses me off the most about this case is that we have 48 people here who are really going through tough times, right?” Salazar said at a press conference. “They are here legally, in our country. At that point, they have every right to be where they are. And I think they were assaulted.”

Immigration attorneys working with some of the asylum seekers told ABC News that immigrants received misleading information, including brochures, about benefits they could receive in Massachusetts.

The governor defended the decrease in the number of immigrants in protest of President Joe Biden’s immigration policies, with border confrontations still at a record level. DeSantis repeatedly insisted that the immigrants volunteered to be taken to Martha’s Vineyard from Texas.

“Why don’t they want to go, given where they are?” He said during an appearance on Fox News’ Shawn Hannity Monday night. “They were in really bad shape.”

What potential violations are being investigated?

Salazar said Monday that his office believes a Venezuelan immigrant received a “bird dog fee” to lure about 50 immigrants to take them to Martha’s Vineyard, where they would be promised work and a better life.

“There is a high potential for laws to be broken here in the state of Texas in Bexar County,” Salazar said.

But he declined to reveal any specific laws he believed might have been violated at the federal, state or local level.

Immigrants stand outside St. Andrew’s Church in Edgartown, Massachusetts, September 14, 2022.

Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette via Reuters

Nor did he identify any suspects.

“We already have the names of some of the suspects involved who we believe are important people in this case at this point, but I’m not going to give those names away,” he said. “To be fair, I think everyone on this call already knows who these names are but suffice it to say we’re going to open this case.”

“We will discover to what extent the law can hold these people accountable,” he added.

Lawyers say DeSantis brochures were misleading

Lawyers representing immigrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard told ABC News that the information provided to them prior to the flight was misleading because the immigrants are not technically refugees. The lawyers said that these people are seeking asylum but have not yet received this status.

Millions of Venezuelans have fled the country since 2014, hoping to escape political turmoil and economic conflicts. US relations with the country – which has for years been subject to US sanctions against the country’s president – have soured and Venezuelans are usually exempt from express expulsion under Title 42, a Trump-era policy used to expel immigrants quickly because of it. from the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Evan Espinosa-Marigal, a prominent attorney representing many immigrants, told ABC that most of the immigrants’ current status are on humanitarian parole, and therefore are ineligible for the benefits described in the brochure they received.

“Only people who have already obtained refugee status are eligible,” U.S. Immigration Council Policy Director Aaron Richlin Melnick told ABC News. “Asylum seekers do not receive any federal assistance and cannot obtain a work permit until at least six months after submitting their asylum application.”

DeSantis pointed to brochures provided by a vendor working with Florida to move immigrants as proof that they were not deceived about where they were going or what would be available to them once they arrived.

“They all signed consent to go forms,” ​​he told Hannity. “Then the vendor doing this gave Florida a package with a Martha Vineyard map, and it had the numbers for the various services on Martha’s Vineyard, and then it had numbers for the total agencies in Massachusetts that deal with immigration and refugees.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks after the midterm primaries during "keep florida free tour, " In Tampa, Florida, August 24, 2022.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks after the midterm primaries during “Keep the Florida Free Tour” in Tampa, Florida, August 24, 2022.

Octavio Jones/Reuters, File

Rachel Self, an immigration attorney who helps immigrants arriving on Martha’s Vineyard, said the map in the brochures was “cartoonically simple” and contained information about how immigrants could change their address with USCIS when they moved.

“This is particularly concerning because anyone with even the simplest understanding of immigration procedures knows that USCIS was not the agency that immigrants would have to register their addresses and had nothing to do with their cases in any way,” Self said.

Usually, immigrants are granted parole on humanitarian grounds and are looking to apply for asylum, and mandatory court hearings are scheduled to take place in the places where they have said they have families or in the courts closest to where the immigration authorities have been treated. This means that immigrants who go unintentionally or under false pretenses to Martha’s Vineyard are at risk of missing court dates, which could speed up their deportation process.

“The pamphlet is full of lies for this particular group of people. Material misrepresentations made to further the illegal scheme,” Self, one of the lawyers, told ABC News.

What the DeSantis team says

Taryn Finsky, Director of Communications at DeSantis, responded to the investigation by Bexar Sheriff’s Office in a social media post on Monday.

“Immigrants are more willing to leave Bexar County after being tempted to cross the border and “make things for themselves.” [Florida] I presented an opportunity in the sanctuary country [with] Resources, as expected – unlike the 53 who died in an abandoned truck in Bexar County in June,” Fenske wrote on Twitter.

DeSantis, while appearing on Hannity, called accusations of immigrant deception “nonsense.”

He promised additional operations to send migrants to so-called “sanctuary authorities,” saying last week he planned to use $12 million from the state’s resettlement program for more transfers.

“These immigrants are being treated horribly by Biden,” DeSantis said at a news conference Tuesday. “They were hungry, homeless, and had absolutely no opportunity. The state of Florida—which was voluntary—offered transportation to the sanctuary areas.” He doubled down on his comments he made to Hannity.

ABC News’s Miles Cohen, Sarah Beth Guevara and Quinn Owen contributed to this report.

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