Attorneys representing Venezuelan asylum-seekers flown thousands of miles to an affluent holiday island in Massachusetts at the behest of Republican governors have formally requested authorities open a criminal investigation, claiming the victims were “induced to board airplanes and cross state lines under false pretences”.
Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR), a Boston-based group representing 30 of the 48 people flown from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard on Wednesday, said: “Individuals, working in concert with state officials, including the Florida governor, made numerous false promises [to the migrants] – including of work opportunities, schooling for their children, and immigration assistance – in order to induce them to travel.”
According to LCR, which is providing pro bono legal assistance to the asylum-seekers, the Venezuelans were duped in what was essentially a coordinated political stunt targeting vulnerable people based on their race and country of origin. Those flown to the holiday island included women and children as young as two years old.
LCR has written to the US attorney Rachael Rollins and the Massachusetts attorney general, Maura Healey, requesting they open criminal investigations, as “we strongly believe that criminal laws were broken by the perpetrators of this stunt”.
In a statement, LCR said: “This cowardly political stunt has placed our clients in peril. Upon arrival, numerous individuals had to be rushed to the hospital, in need of medical care. Some now have immigration hearings as early as Monday thousands of miles away.”
It was only when the plane was midair that people were told they were heading to Martha’s Vineyard and not Boston, according to LCR. Florida governor Ron DeSantis has denied that the migrants were duped, claiming that they signed waivers knowing where they were going.
The political fallout may bring unintended consequences for DeSantis as Florida is home to the largest Venezuelan diaspora outside the country. The Venezuelan population in the US has more than doubled in the past decade amid an unprecedented exodus caused by the country’s economic and political crises, which have driven out millions of people from the once stable and prosperous South American country.
Local Venezuelan advocates and community leaders slammed DeSantis over the weekend, accusing the governor of political game playing.
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, Arkansas and Florida, who say they are protesting what they describe as the failure by the federal government to secure the border, have spent millions of taxpayer dollars – including funds allocated for Covid relief – in bussing thousands of migrants and refugees to Washington DC, New York and Chicago. On Saturday, about 50 migrants, including a one-month-old baby, were sent in a bus from Texas to the Washington home of the vice-president, Kamala Harris.
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.
A protest is planned for Sunday, when activists from the country’s oldest and largest Latino civil rights group, the League of United Latin American Citizens (Lulac), plan to make a human chain in order to physically stop further buses departing Eagle Pass, Texas.
“Lulac is going to counter the anti-migrant political hate speech, lies, and misinformation recruiters are using to entice men, women, and children in despair,” said Domingo Garcia, the group’s national president. “Governors Abbott, DeSantis, and others are toying with them like political piñatas with no concern for their well-being.”
Lulac is planning similar actions across the border, as part of a nationwide education campaign called Bust the Buses.
“This is a new threat – in addition to the cartels and extreme weather – so we need to be on the ground spreading the word so migrants know that there are rogue agents of the state trying to scam them,” Carlos A Martinez, Lulac’s social media manager, told the Guardian on route to Eagle Pass.
On Sunday Dick Durbin, chair of the senate judiciary committee, criticized the southern Republican governors for using migrants for “political purposes”.
“It is pathetic that these governors are taking advantage of these helpless people,” he said. “It’s always the kids that end up being the victims.”