“Lured under false pretenses”: Furious Texas sheriff investigating DeSantis’ Martha’s Vineyard stunt

DeSantis' legal trouble may just be getting started as he faces potential federal and state probes

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published September 20, 2022 1:23PM (EDT)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

A Texas sheriff on Monday announced a criminal investigation into Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis chartering flights to send 48 migrants from San Antonio in Texas' Bexar County to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts last week, calling his actions "an abuse of human rights." 

Bexar County Javier Salazar said in a news conference on Monday that the migrants were "lured under false pretenses" into staying at a hotel before being flown to Florida and then Martha's Vineyard. They were handed misleading brochures promising cash assistance, housing, job placement services, and more, according to their lawyers.

Salazar, whose office's organized crime investigators are looking into the issue, said a recruiter was paid a "bird dog fee" to recruit people to board a plane. The woman, who migrants identified as "Perla", according to NPR, promised the group they would receive expedited work permits in Boston.

After being flown to the Massachusetts island where the asylum-seekers were taken "for little more than a photo op or a video op," they were left "unceremoniously stranded," Salazar said.

"What infuriates me the most is what we have is 48 people here legally — they have every right to be here and they were preyed upon," Salazar said. "Lured with promises of a better life and with the knowledge they would cling anything that was offered for a better life and were exploited and hoodwinked to make the trip to Florida for what I believe was political posturing."

He said it was too early in the investigation to name suspects but added: "Everybody on this call knows who those names are already."

Salazar's investigation comes as immigrant rights groups and Democrats have equated DeSantis' actions to human trafficking for treating migrants like "human cargo" in hopes of scoring political points. 

DeSantis said last week that the planes were part of his state's $12 million program to relocate migrants to a "sanctuary destination." But Democratic state lawmakers have argued that his actions exceeded the authority granted by the legislature when it approved the program and that DeSantis' administration violated state law by using taxpayer dollars to fly migrants in Texas to Martha's Vineyard.

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Senator Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation sent a letter to the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Inspector General urging them to review Florida's apparent misuse of federal pandemic relief funds intended to help communities recover from the pandemic for "an inhumane program to transport newly arrived immigrants".

No Massachusetts officials were aware of the migrants' arrival and they were later moved to a military base shelter at Cape Cod, where they are receiving "shelter and humanitarian support," according to a statement released by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Lt. Governor Karyn Polito.

"The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) is coordinating efforts among state and local officials to ensure access to food, shelter and essential services for these men, women and children," the statement said. "Governor Charlie Baker also plans to activate up to 125 members of the Massachusetts National Guard as part of this relief effort." 

MEMA is working with local agencies to ensure the people being housed there also have access to healthcare and legal services.

During his press conference, Salazar said that while the White House has not been in contact with his office, he is open to communicating with them.

"This case would absolutely have to go federal," he said, "and I would welcome a call from the White House to discuss."

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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