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DeSantis, Florida sued by 3 migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard

“These immigrants ... experienced cruelty akin to what they fled in their home country,” the lawsuit alleges.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens to a question during a news conference Sept. 7 in Miami. Three of the nearly 50 migrants who were flown to Martha’s Vineyard last week by the state of Florida are suing Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis listens to a question during a news conference Sept. 7 in Miami. Three of the nearly 50 migrants who were flown to Martha’s Vineyard last week by the state of Florida are suing Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials. [ REBECCA BLACKWELL | AP ]
Published Sep. 20|Updated Sep. 21

Three of the nearly 50 migrants who were flown to Martha’s Vineyard last week by the state of Florida are suing Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials, alleging they were duped into traveling to an island in the northeast as part of a scheme to benefit the governor’s political career.

The suit, filed in federal court in Massachusetts, alleges that DeSantis, Florida’s Transportation Department secretary and others tricked migrants into leaving Texas by offering them McDonald’s gift cards and other items to board the flights, and by promising them assistance and employment. The lawsuit names five other people as defendants, including a man and woman believed by attorneys to have recruited migrants in San Antonio, Texas, to board the planes.

The plaintiffs include three anonymous Venezuelan migrants and Alianza Americas, a transnational organization that advocates on behalf of immigrants rights.

Related: Texas sheriff investigating Florida’s migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard

“These immigrants, who are pursuing the proper channels for lawful immigration status in the United States, experienced cruelty akin to what they fled in their home country,” the lawsuit alleges.

The three migrants, who asked the court Tuesday for permission to use pseudonyms, say they suffered emotionally from the scheme. One woman claimed she felt helpless and started crying when they landed in Martha’s Vineyard. She says she and her 11-year-old son have needed mental health support — she has suffered from lack of sleep and vertigo as a result.

Related: Venezuelans slam DeSantis after migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard

Another said he was promised free English classes, legal assistance and food if he boarded the flight. A third said he was asked to sign a document that was not completely translated into Spanish — and allegedly contained vital information about liability and transport to Massachusetts — in order to receive a $10 McDonald’s gift card.

All three said that if they had known the offer was part of “a political ploy that would thrust them into the national spotlight,” none would have taken the flight.

“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,” the suit reads.

Migrants were ‘intentionally sequestered’

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit. A spokesperson for FDOT did not return a request for comment either.

But in a statement shared with other reporters, state communications director Taryn Fenske said it was “opportunistic that activists would use illegal immigrants for political theater.”

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She also attached a form titled “OFFICIAL CONSENT TO TRANSPORT” that was allegedly signed by migrants being transported to Martha’s Vineyard. In Spanish, the form says the person who signs is consenting “voluntarily to be transported by the benefactor and its representatives to places outside of the state of Texas to sanctuary states.”

Related: DeSantis’ next move? Flight heads to Nashville — not Biden’s home

DeSantis, who is running for reelection and viewed as a potential presidential candidate in 2024, has defended the program to move migrants across the country, which he has described as a protest against President Joe Biden’s immigration policies. Other Republican governors, in Texas and Arizona, have bused migrants to cities like New York and Washington.

On Monday, DeSantis said the migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard “were provided an ability to be in the most posh sanctuary jurisdiction, maybe in the world.”

“They were hungry, homeless. They had no opportunity at all,” DeSantis said of their situation in San Antonio.

The lawsuit alleges that the five unnamed defendants, which include alleged recruiters who identified themselves to migrants as “Perla” and “Emanuel,” made copies of the migrants’ immigration paperwork “so they could confirm that their immigration status met the ultimate ends of their scheme.” Meanwhile, migrants were put up in hotel rooms for days until enough people had agreed to board the planes.

The lawsuit further claims that the defendants “intentionally sequestered the class members” to prevent them from discussing the details of the trip with any “true Good Samaritans” and so that they wouldn’t change their minds while they waited.

The five unnamed defendants allegedly gave migrants phone numbers to call if they had any questions about the trip. But the lawsuit says the group was “suddenly nowhere to be found and unreachable by phone” when the planes landed in Massachusetts.

The migrants are asking District Judge Allison D. Burroughs to declare that the state violated the U.S. Constitution” and broke federal and state laws by tricking them and flying them across state lines. They are also asking for compensatory, emotional distress and punitive damages to the migrants and attorneys’ fees.

Oren Sellstrom, the litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights, the organization which filed the lawsuit, said the stories from migrants were “heartbreaking.”

“The conduct by the Florida governor is not only morally repugnant, but illegal under the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes as well,” Sellstrom told the Miami Herald. “The practice of fraudulently inducing vulnerable immigrants to board planes and cross state lines through false promises violates core constitutional provisions including deprivation of liberty and due process.”

Unanswered questions

Last week, DeSantis denied that the people sent to Martha’s Vineyard had been tricked. The private contractor hired by the Florida Department of Transportation to carry out the program told them where they were going, he said.

“The folks that are contracted (for the program), not only do the people give them a release form to sign, they actually give them a packet, and in that packet included a map of Martha’s Vineyard,” he said Friday. “So it was obvious that that’s where they were going.”

DeSantis also pledged to spend “every penny” of the $12 million allocated in the state budget to move migrants to other parts of the country.

But his administration has released almost no details about the program or last week’s flights.

The state has made two payments worth a combined $1.56 million to a Destin-based aviation vendor called Vertol Systems Company, but the Department of Transportation has not released the contract with the company.

His spokespeople have left a number of questions unanswered about the program from news outlets, including the Times/Herald.

State lawmakers, including Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, have also posed questions to the state about whether the spending complies with the 2022 state law creating the program. The law authorized $12 million — interest earned from federal pandemic aid dollars — to be spent “to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.”

The migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard last week were in Texas and had not set foot in Florida. DeSantis, who has spent the last year complaining about the threat of migrants to Floridians, said on Friday that he couldn’t find any in the state to deport.

Instead, he said the program was pivoting to “profile” migrants in other states who say they want to come to Florida.

“What we’re trying to do is profile, OK, who do you think is going to try to get to Florida? And if they get in a car with two other people, there’s no way we’re going to be able to detect that. So you’re trying to identify who’s most likely to come.”

Miami Herald staff writer Nick Nehamas and Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated.

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