Lawsuit targets Florida Governor Ron DeSantis over migrant flights

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to Trump Rally attendees.
Ron DeSantis speaks to Trump rally attendees. WMNF (October 2020).

By Jim Saunders and Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — As he defended sending migrants to “sanctuary jurisdictions,” Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday was hit with a potential class-action lawsuit that alleged Venezuelan migrants were lured with false promises to fly last week from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Massachusetts, named as defendants DeSantis, the state of Florida, Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue and unidentified people accused of rounding up migrants in Texas.

Florida paid for two flights out of a $12 million pot of money that Republican lawmakers included in the state budget this year at DeSantis’ request for relocating migrants. The lawsuit, filed by attorneys from the organization Lawyers for Civil Rights, alleges violations of the U.S. Constitution and other laws.

“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 said. “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 lawsuit named as plaintiffs three Venezuelan migrants — identified as Yanet Doe, Pablo Doe and Jesus Doe — who were among about 50 people on the flights last Wednesday to Martha’s Vineyard. The organization Alianza Americas also is a plaintiff.

Attorneys are seeking to certify the lawsuit as a class action that would include “all immigrants who have been, or will in the future be, induced by Defendants to travel across state lines by fraud and misrepresentation.” Along with seeking a ruling that laws were violated last week, the lawsuit calls for blocking the defendants from “inducing immigrants to travel across state lines by fraud and misrepresentation.”

In part, the case alleges that the unidentified defendants in Texas provided items such as $10 McDonald’s gift cards to migrants to gain their trust. It alleges the unidentified defendants subsequently “made false promises and false representations that if Plaintiffs and class members were willing to board airplanes to other states, they would receive employment, housing, educational opportunities, and other like assistance upon their arrival.”

“In fact, Defendants had made no arrangements for employment, housing, educational opportunities, or other assistance for the individual Plaintiffs or other class members at their destination,” the lawsuit said. “Defendants had not even notified any governmental or non-profit entity that could provide such services that the individual Plaintiffs and their similarly situated class members would be arriving.”

DeSantis spokeswoman Taryn Fenske issued a statement Tuesday night saying it is “opportunistic that activists would use illegal immigrants for political theater. If these activists spent even a fraction of this time and effort at the border, perhaps some accountability would be brought to the Biden Administration’s reckless border policies that entice illegal immigrants to make dangerous and often lethal journeys through Central America and put their lives in the hands of cartels and coyotes.”

“The transportation of the immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard was done on a voluntary basis,” Fenske said. “The immigrants were homeless, hungry, and abandoned — and these activists didn’t care about them then. Florida’s program gave them a fresh start in a sanctuary state and these individuals opted to take advantage of chartered flights to Massachusetts.”

The lawsuit emerged hours after DeSantis, during an appearance at Anna Maria Oyster Bar Landside in Bradenton, defended the move to transport migrants and criticized federal immigration policies. DeSantis reiterated that he thinks President Joe Biden should reinstate immigration policies used by former President Donald Trump, such as a requirement for asylum seekers to remain in Mexico.

“Short of that, if you believe in open borders, then it’s the sanctuary jurisdictions that should have to bear the brunt of the open borders,” DeSantis said.

Rumors swirled Tuesday that another flight would bring migrants to Biden’s home state of Delaware. As of 6 p.m., such a flight had not landed in Delaware.

Responding to the rumors, Biden said DeSantis “should come visit. We have a beautiful shoreline.”

The flights last week went from San Antonio, Texas, to Crestview in Northwest Florida and ultimately to Martha’s Vineyard.

DeSantis, who is running for re-election in November and is widely considered a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024, contended Tuesday that the flights moved the national narrative on immigration issues. He accused people now raising concerns of not expressing similar “outrage” over the June deaths in Texas of dozens of migrants who had been in a tractor-trailer or about illegal drugs crossing the border.

Biden said borders have become overwhelmed during the past year as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua have become more unstable.

Biden said there is “no rationale” to send such people back to their countries. On Monday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported migrant apprehensions have topped 2 million this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The number was up from 1.66 million last fiscal year.

In addition to the class-action lawsuit, DeSantis has faced questions from Democrats and other critics who alleged he overstepped his budget authority in using state money for the flights from Texas.

The state budget says the $12 million money is to transport “unauthorized aliens from this state consistent with federal law.” The term “unauthorized alien” is defined in the budget as a person unlawfully present in the U.S. under the federal Immigration and Nationality Act.

Meanwhile, in Texas, Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, a Democrat, said Monday he launched an investigation to determine if any criminal activity occurred in flying migrants “here legally in our country” from San Antonio for “little more than a photo op.”

“We all know that during a political campaign, things can get nasty, things can get out of hand,” Salazar said during a news conference. “But when you’re playing with human lives of people that are already in a desperate situation, people that again had every right to be where they were, but were lured under false pretenses, that does tend to bother me quite a bit.”

Salazar was unable to say what laws might have been broken. He said his agency has names of people of interest and needs to interview migrants to determine if any charges apply.

“We want to know what was promised to them? What, if anything, did they sign? Did they even understand the document that was put in front of them if they signed something? Or was this strictly a predatory measure?” Salazar said.

Meanwhile, State House New Service in Boston reported that Massachusetts lawmakers have called for federal investigations into DeSantis and Florida’s use of taxpayer money. Also, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, argued for “meaningful immigration reform.”

“Sending people all over the country, many of whom have no idea why they’re being sent where they’re going, isn’t a solution to the very screwed-up immigration system that we have in the U.S.,” Baker said.

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