Authorities in Texas have opened a criminal investigation into Gov. Ron DeSantis’ operation to fly roughly 50 Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard last week.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar announced at a news conference Monday that his office is investigating whether the migrants were the victims of a crime, saying they were “lured under false pretenses.” Many migrants said they agreed to fly from San Antonio to the Massachusetts island after being promised jobs. But there was no work waiting.
“I believe people need to be held accountable for it to the extent possible,” Salazar said. “At this point, I’m not able to definitively say here’s the statute that they broke, either federal, state or local, but what I can tell you is it’s wrong. Just from a human rights perspective, what was done to these folks is wrong.”
DeSantis took responsibility for the two charter flights last week, saying they were part of a state program to relocate migrants from Florida, although the group of Venezuelans was in San Antonio.
Salaza called the flights “political theater.” He did not name DeSantis.
He also said his office was working with a private attorney for the migrants, as well as advocacy groups, and was preparing to cooperate with federal agencies “should the need arise.”
In response to a request for comment, Jeremy Redfern, DeSantis’ deputy press secretary, did not answer with words.
Instead, he emailed a screenshot of a news story with the headline: “Bexar County Sheriff Salazar says Biden admin’s handling of immigration ‘isn’t working.’“
The migrants said they were recruited for the Martha’s Vineyard trip with falsehoods.
Several said that a woman known as “Perla” approached them outside a migrant resource center in San Antonio and offered them jobs and assistance if they flew to Massachusetts. Those claims of employment and other opportunities turned out to be false as officials on Martha’s Vineyard were unprepared for their arrival last Wednesday.
In addition, brochures provided to the migrants said they could receive cash assistance and employment services after landing. The brochures included the phone number and website of the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants. The office said it did not print the brochures, which were shared with the Herald by Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based legal group representing some of the migrants.
While “Perla’s” full name and connections have not yet been publicly revealed, Salazar suggested the investigation could reach Florida.
“If somebody’s in Florida and they need to be brought here to be brought to justice, that’s just paperwork at that point,” the sheriff said.
He said investigators had obtained the names of “persons of interest” but declined to release them yet.
The migrants have legal status in the United States, having presented themselves to U.S. authorities after crossing the border in Texas and seeking asylum status.
DeSantis has said the flights were financed with Florida taxpayer money meant to remove migrants from Florida. All the migrants boarded in San Antonio, which is in Bexar County, although the planes stopped in Florida’s Panhandle to refuel.
Transporting migrants from Texas with Florida money appears to conflict with language included in the state budget that authorized the $12 million program.
Passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and supported by most Democrats, the budget instructed the Florida Department of Transportation to spend the funds “to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.”
DeSantis has also suggested the flights were a way to intercept migrants before they reached Florida.
No migrants who crossed the border Sunday in Eagle Pass, Texas, told the Miami Herald they wanted to go to Florida. Instead, most hoped to travel to New York.
They spoke of a dangerous journey to the United States and an uncertain future now that they’re here.
None had the money for a $50 bus ticket to San Antonio, the nearest city.
Advocates say that makes them easy prey for scammers.