Groups of Venezuelan migrants wait outside the Migrant Resource Center to receive food from the San Antonio Catholic Charities on September 19, 2022 in San Antonio, Texas.
Jordan Vonderhaar | Getty Images News | Getty Images
A Texas sheriff said Monday that his office has opened a criminal investigation into Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ unprecedented move to send nearly 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, last week.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said the inquiry was in its early stages, and he declined to name possible suspects. But in a news conference, he said: “Everybody on this call knows who those names are already.”
Salazar said it was not clear whether any laws had been broken, but he said that 48 migrants appeared to have been “lured under false pretenses” into staying at a hotel for a couple of days before they were flown to Florida and Martha’s Vineyard.
“They were promised work,” he said. “They were promised the solution to several of their problems.”
He said a recruiter was paid a “bird dog fee” to gather roughly 50 people around a San Antonio migrant resource center.
The asylum-seekers, most of them Venezuelan, were then taken to the posh Massachusetts island “for little more than a photo op or a video op, and they were unceremoniously stranded in Martha’s Vineyard,” Salazar said.
Salazar said his office’s organized crime investigators would handle the investigation.
Immigration advocates and lawyers called for a criminal investigation into DeSantis’ effort to move the migrants under a $12 million program aimed at relocating “unauthorized aliens” to what his administration has described as “sanctuary” jurisdictions.
The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday night. His administration has previously denied breaking any laws with the program, and at a news conference Friday, DeSantis said he would “spend every penny” he could on it.
The League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, offered a reward of $5,000 for information that leads to the identification of the person who misled the migrants. “Wanted” posters have gone up around San Antonio.
“It’s one of the most cruel political stunts I’ve seen in my lifetime,” LULAC President Domingo García said.
García said LULAC has spoken to several asylum-seekers who said a woman named “Perla” told them they were going to Boston and promised three months of work and free housing.
García, who spoke with about a dozen migrants on Martha’s Vineyard last week, said Monday that “Perla” gave them a map with an “X,” marking a refugee center, which ended up being an empty parking lot.
Attorneys representing 30 of the 48 migrants have asked the Massachusetts attorney general and the federal government to open criminal investigations. They said their clients “were induced to board airplanes and cross state lines under false pretenses.”
Immigration advocates, as well as Democrats and the Biden administration, say transporting migrants is dehumanizing, and they accuse Republicans of using people for political stunts as calls for a criminal investigation grow.
Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, tweeted that “the Department of Justice needs to investigate Governor DeSantis for using fraud and deception to lure people out of state only to abandon them without fulfilling his false promises. Same for Greg Abbott. They’re engaging in human trafficking.”
Since April, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has bused migrants released from federal immigration custody to Washington, D.C., New York City and Chicago. He accuses President Joe Biden of being too lax on migration. A month later, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, also began transporting migrants to Washington, D.C.
DeSantis sent two planes carrying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard on Wednesday.
The Florida Immigrant Coalition, a statewide coalition for more than 65 organizations, is investigating whether federal funds were misused when DeSantis sent the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard and whether there is room for litigation.
“We are disgusted,” co-Executive Director Tessa Petit said. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure this does not repeat again.”
Many of the migrants are asylum-seekers who have fled socialist countries, like Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, where daily life has become difficult under authoritarian regimes.