Advocates question whether Florida gov. broke laws by shipping migrants to Vineyard

A migrant from Venezuela walks across Winter Street to St. Andrew’s Parish House in Edgartown. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A migrant from Venezuela walks across Winter Street to St. Andrew’s Parish House in Edgartown. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Immigration rights advocates and lawmakers are questioning whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis violated any laws when he unexpectedly flew nearly 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard this week, catching many local officials by surprise.

Advocacy groups say there are several potential legal issues with the transfer. First, some advocates say the South American immigrants were deceived into boarding the planes to Massachusetts with misleading information about where they were going and the aid they would later receive.

“We are seeing disturbing trends, misrepresentations that were made to the families, not having all of the information available about how they were going to be treated,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based advocacy group. “What we are seeing here is a deprivation of civil rights, a deprivation of their constitutional rights.”

Espinoza-Madrigal and a team of lawyers with his group went to the Vineyard to offer legal assistance. Many of the Venezuelan nationals who landed on the island were seeking asylum.

Florida state Sen. Tina Polsky also questioned whether the DeSantis administration violated laws by misleading migrants into flying to Massachusetts. “You think of human trafficking. You think of kidnapping. These people were certainly lured.”

Cyclists and drivers of automobiles pass by the scene at St. Andrew’s Parish House in Edgartown where 48 migrants from Venezuela were transported from Florida to Martha Vineyard. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Flight trackers showed the pair of planes originally took off from San Antonio, Texas. They then made brief stops in Florida and other states before landing in Massachusetts.

Questions remain about how DeSantis paid for the flights. Florida’s legislature allocated $12 million this year to the Florida Department of Transportation to transport unauthorized immigrants out of Florida.

Lawmakers and immigration advocates say it’s unclear whether that money can legally be used to ship migrants from Texas to Massachusetts, as DeSantis appears to have done.

“The money that was given to this operation from the budget said for people that are in the state,” said Polsky, the Florida state senator. “So that’s a question — whether or not that’s even allowed.”

Florida also passed a law this year barring government entities from contracting with airlines that “willfully” carried people who entered the U.S. illegally into Florida, unless it was to “facilitate the detention, removal, or departure of the person from this state or the United States.”

Florida state Sen. Bobby Powell, Jr., said the move by his governor “flies in the face of the intent of legislation,” because the migrants were first transferred to Florida from Texas before they were flown to Massachusetts.

“The governor needs to explain his authority for sending these refugees anywhere,” Powell said in a statement.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom also asked the Department of Justice to investigate whether the transport violated any civil rights laws or could be considered kidnapping.

Migrants from Venezuela, sent to Martha’s Vineyard by way of Texas and Florida, stand and talk to one another at St. Andrew’s Parish House in Edgartown. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

DeSantis’s office did not return a request for comment on the legal questions. But DeSantis took credit for the flights at a news conference Thursday, saying the state had to take measures because President Biden isn’t doing enough to halt illegal immigration.

And last December, DeSantis bragged about using state money to send immigrants who crossed America’s southern border illegally to Democratic states.

“It’s somewhat tongue in cheek, but it’s true that if you sent [immigrants] to Delaware or Martha’s Vineyard or some of these places, that border would be secure the next day,” he said at the time.

Immigration advocates in Florida excoriated DeSantis, saying he was using people as pawns to make a political point in a bid to be the 2024 Republican candidate for president.

“He wants to stand on a debate stage and point to this and say, I was the toughest on immigration and look what I did to troll Biden,” said Thomas Kennedy, a Miami-based activist with the Florida Immigrant Coalition. “And it’s disgusting because real people that are fleeing desperate conditions with children are the ones that get caught in the crossfire.”

Kennedy says his group is also looking into whether the families were deceived or lied to, and the legal implications of the situation.

This story was originally published by WBUR, a partner of the New England News Collaborative.