Attorneys representing the Venezuelan migrants and refugees allegedly duped into flying to the wealthy island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts have filed a class-action civil rights lawsuit against the Florida governor and other state officials.
Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR), a Boston-based legal advocacy group, filed the lawsuit on Tuesday challenging what it called the “fraudulent and discriminatory” scheme to charter private planes to transport almost 50 vulnerable people, including children as young as two, from San Antonio, Texas, via Florida, to Martha’s Vineyard last week without liaising to arrange shelter and other resources.
The two charter flights cost about $615,000 – $12,300 per person – of taxpayers’ money, according to the legal filing.
The civil rights suit is against the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis; the Florida transport secretary, Jared Perdue, the state of Florida, and their unidentified accomplices – who allegedly helped find and lure the asylum seekers on to the flights.
“No human being should be used as a political pawn in the nation’s highly polarized debate over immigration,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of LCR, which is providing pro bono legal assistance and accompanied the migrants to a military base on Cape Cod for shelter.
The lawsuit is seeking to stop the Florida Republican officials from duping migrants and refugees into crossing state lines – and damages of at least $75,000 per person for the harm suffered.
The plaintiffs include a woman known in the filing as Yolanda Doe, who boarded the flight with her husband and 11-year-old son, among other Venezuelans, and Alianza Americas, a national network of grassroots organizations supporting refugees and migrants.
According to the complaint, seen by the Guardian, the Venezuelan plaintiffs “fled to the United States in a desperate attempt to protect themselves and their families from gang, police, and state-sponsored violence and the oppression of political dissent”.
It goes on: “In or around September 2022, the defendants and their unidentified accomplices designed and executed a premeditated, fraudulent, and illegal scheme centered on exploiting this vulnerability for the sole purpose of advancing their own personal, financial and political interests.”
According to the legal filing, the scheme included looking for vulnerable people by “trolling streets around a migrant shelter in Texas … pretending to be good Samaritans offering humanitarian assistance.” It said they were given $10 McDonald’s gift certificates and lured away from the shelter to a hotel on the promise that they would receive employment, housing, and educational opportunities if they would board a plane to another state. They stayed at the “free” hotel until enough people had been gathered to fill the planes.
On the day of the flight, the complaint says, the Venezuelans were falsely told they were flying to Boston or Washington DC. The planes took off from a private airstrip. Just before landing, the Venezuelans were all given a shiny, red folder that included other official-looking material including a brochure titled Massachusetts Refugee Benefits. The brochure, it is alleged, was manufactured by defendants – not an official Massachusetts or immigration agency.
The brochure echoed false promises made before the flights, including statements such as: “During the first 90 days after a refugee’s arrival in Massachusetts, resettlement agencies provide basic needs support including … assistance with housing … furnishings, food, and other basic necessities … clothing, and transportation to job interviews and job training.”
When they disembarked on Martha’s Vineyard, there was no food or shelter. And no one on the island – or anywhere in Massachusetts – knew they were coming, the lawsuit states. Defendants who had been on the flight allegedly disappeared and stopped answering their phones.
The next day, DeSantis claimed responsibility for the scheme.
The Martha’s Vineyard case is part of a series of legally and ethically controversial moves by southern border state Republican governors to transport migrants and asylum seekers to so-called liberal cities to supposedly embarrass the Biden administration in the run-up to the midterm elections.
The governors of Texas, Arizona and Florida, who say they are protesting against what they describe as the failure by the federal government to secure the US-Mexico border, have spent millions of taxpayer dollars – including funds allocated for Covid-19 relief – in bussing thousands of migrants and refugees to Washington, New York and Chicago in recent months.
The strategy, which has been condemned by the White House, Democratic officials, immigration lawyers and rights groups, has caused further stress and upheaval for many of the migrants and refugees, who are often trying to reunite with relatives while their legal asylum claims are processed in court.
According to the complaint, the Venezuelans, who are pursuing the proper channels for lawful immigration status in the US, “experienced cruelty akin to what they fled in their home country. Defendants manipulated them, stripped them of their dignity, deprived them of their liberty, bodily autonomy, due process, and equal protection under law, and impermissibly interfered with the federal government’s exclusive control over immigration in furtherance of an unlawful goal and a personal political agenda.”
“This cowardly political stunt has placed our clients in peril. Numerous laws were brazenly violated to secure media headlines,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for LRC.
Millions of Venezuelans have fled the once-prosperous South American country amid an unprecedented exodus caused by the country’s economic and political crises. According to Amnesty International, “human rights violations, including politically motivated arbitrary detentions, torture, extrajudicial executions and excessive use of force, have been systematic and widespread [in Venezuela]”.