Did Gov. DeSantis break the law with his Martha’s Vineyard ‘stunt’? Legal experts want Justice Dept. to weigh in

Katiuska was told she’d be heading to New York. When she landed on a private charter on Martha’s Vineyard, she felt fear.

“We didn’t know the island was so far away, they said we had arrived in Boston,” said Katiuska, who did not want to give her last name. She had spent several days in a San Antonio hotel after traveling from Venezuela.

“I was scared more than worried … because we didn’t know where we were going, and when we would arrive,” she told MassLive while staying in Martha’s Vineyard on Thursday.

Katiuska arrived in Martha’s Vineyard along with a group of migrants, reportedly asylum seekers, who Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had flown to the island as part of his state’s new immigration relocation program and in protest of President Joe Biden’s immigration policies.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called DeSantis’ actions a “cruel, premeditated political stunt.”

A question immigration lawyers and elected officials are now asking is: did misleading and transporting the migrants violate criminal and civil law?

In the days since the early, chaotic moments on Wednesday when about 50 migrants landed unexpectedly at Martha’s Vineyard Airport, the town has come together to feed, clothe and shelter the migrants like Katiuska. Many of the migrants arriving said they came to the United States to build a better life, find work and help their families back home.

“We come from a land where everything is political,” she said. “So we don’t want anything to do with politics … we want to keep moving forward.”

Long-term plans for the migrants on Martha’s Vineyard are still being worked out, the director of a homeless shelter on the island said on Thursday afternoon. Lisa Belcastro, director of Winter Homes, expects the roughly 50 migrants from Venezuala to stay at least into Friday, possibly into the weekend, as state authorities consider transforming Joint Base Cape Cod in Bourne into a makeshift hub for resources and volunteer workers.

Now, immigration lawyers and other legal advocates are questioning whether the actions Gov. Ron DeSantis took amount to a potential civil or criminal violation, based on reports that they were lured onto the planes with the promise of expedited immigration work, jobs, and shelter — and that they were going to Boston and New York, not Martha’s Vineyard.

Immigration lawyers told WCVB that migrants were given a brochure with misleading information about their futures.

“They were told in Texas that they were coming to a place that had jobs and homes and shelter waiting for them,” Larkin Stallangs, who works with Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, told WCVB. “They feel lied to, and they feel betrayed that, yeah, this was not what they expected,” a translator for one of the migrants told WCVB.

On Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California posted a letter he sent to the U.S. Justice Department calling on authorities to investigate the “interstate transportation of migrants.”

He wrote, “Clearly, transporting families, including children, across state lines under false pretenses is morally reprehensible, but it may also be illegal … Accordingly, I strongly urge the U.S. Department of Justice (US DOJ) to open an investigation into possible criminal or civil violations of federal law based on this alleged fraudulent scheme.”

In a statement to MassLive, U.S. Congressman Jim McGovern said he agreed that the “campaign stunt” could rise to the level of violating the law.

“Using taxpayer money to ship vulnerable people across the country under false pretenses is not just a campaign stunt—it appears to be human trafficking. It also looks like he illegally used Florida’s COVID relief money to run this operation. These are major violations of federal law that should be investigated,” McGovern said.

McGovern said that DeSantis’ stunt backfired.

“Massachusetts is warmly welcoming these people with open arms, shelter, food, and friendship—and treating them with the dignity and respect they deserve as human beings,” the congressman said.

US Attorney Rachael Rollins told the Boston Globe on Thursday that she does not have enough information yet to determine whether laws were broken.

“We are looking into that case and will be speaking with members of the Department of Justice. Massachusetts isn’t the only place where this has happened,” Rollins said. “We have several other sister communities, whether it’s D.C., New York, California, where we’ve seen things like this. And we’re hoping to get some input from the Department of Justice about what our next steps might be, if any at all.”

Others have compared the events that transpire on Wednesday to kidnapping and human trafficking.

“Transporting undocumented immigrants across state lines against their will…. isn’t that the very definition of human trafficking,” Sen. Adam Gomez wrote on Twitter.

Susan Church, an immigration lawyer based in Cambridge, told the Boston Globe a legal team is working with advocacy groups to interview the migrants and determine whether they are eligible for visas for victims of crimes.

“They were duped in to getting onto the plane,” said Church, former chair of the New England Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “This is akin to kidnapping.”

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https://www.masslive.com/news/2022/09/did-gov-desantis-break-the-law-with-his-marthas-vineyard-stunt-legal-experts-want-justice-dept-to-weigh-in.html