DeSantis' migrant flights grabbed headlines -- and now face legal scrutiny as questions swirl
Breaking down the answers and unknowns.
On Sept. 14, two chartered planes carrying about 50 migrants arrived on Martha's Vineyard, an island enclave off the coast of Massachusetts that is famed for its seasonal visitors like the Obamas.
Some of the migrants from Venezuela, including parents and children, thought they were being taken to communities with jobs for them and other resources, they or their attorneys later said. But local officials said they did not know about their arrival and scrambled to accommodate them.
A day later, Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis took credit for transporting the migrants.
He cast the flights -- which his state's government paid for out of funds originally tagged for COVID-19 relief -- as a necessary stunt in protest of Democrats' immigration policies.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, another leading Republican, has similarly been busing migrants from his state to Democratic-led areas far from the border to highlight the "crisis," including a record number of migrant arrests at the border this fiscal year.
"l'll tell you this: The border is now an issue in these elections," DeSantis said at a Wisconsin rally on Sept. 18. "It's on the ballot, and we got to make the most of it."
But for as much attention as the flights drew to the issue of immigration -- and likewise drew praise from some conservative voters and lawmakers -- they have also drawn backlash and mounting legal scrutiny.
Attorneys representing some of the migrants filed a class-action lawsuit last week claiming "material misrepresentations [were] made in furtherance of the unlawful scheme." And a Florida lawmaker filed his own complaint on Sept. 22, arguing the state monies for the flights were illegally used.
The sheriff in San Antonio, Texas, has also opened an investigation, telling ABC News: "We have to determine what exactly happened -- what was said, what was done, how were these people treated while they were here in my county? And if we can prove criminal intent, then we may be charging somebody with a crime."
DeSantis, for his part, told ABC News that claims the migrants were "lured" from Texas are "false."
Despite questions from ABC News and other outlets, DeSantis and his office have declined to discuss many of the specifics of the flights to Martha's Vineyard, such as the scope of the government's role in finding migrants and which state officials and outside entities were involved in the flights.
Here is what is known and still unknown about DeSantis' headline-grabbing efforts to move migrants.
What is known
The Florida government worked with at least one third-party vendor to gather and transport the migrants earlier this month from Texas directly to Massachusetts.
The migrants and their attorneys said in news reports and court papers that they are seeking asylum in the U.S. after leaving Venezuela to avoid violence.
The migrants have been processed by the government and are awaiting court hearings on their immigration status, according to their attorneys.
Florida officials funded the private flights via money that was originally authorized by Congress for COVID-19 relief, though the interest that the money accrued -- which was what technically paid for the migrant flights -- came with fewer strings, experts told ABC News.
Democratic lawmakers in Washington have called on the Department of Justice to dig deeper: Forty-five House Democrats wrote a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Sept. 23 to request a federal investigation into the flights, including whether there was a fraudulent scheme using federal funds to transport the migrants.
How Florida paid for the flights
The Florida Legislature earlier this year approved $12 million from the state's budget for a program to "facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state," according to the language in the budget.
"We're going to spend every penny of that to make sure that we're protecting the people of the state of Florida," DeSantis said on Sept. 16.
That $12 million in the state's budget comes from the interest accrued on the $8.8 billion that Florida received as a part of the $350 billion federal fund for state and local governments to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout. The fund is part of the American Rescue Plan signed into law by President Joe Biden.
States were directed to use their portion of the funds on pandemic-related issues such as providing pay bumps for essential workers and making up for shortfalls in lost revenue.
But there are fewer restrictions and parameters on how the interest accrued from the funds can be used, said Alexis Tsoukalas, an analyst for the Florida Policy Institute.
"Clearly, the fund was meant to help Floridians who are recovering from the persistent impacts of the pandemic, not for initiatives like these," Tsoukalas told ABC News. "It wasn't the intention for the federal government that these funds would be used in these manners."
Who are the migrants
Among the approximately 50 people who were flown to Martha's Vineyard from Texas are parents and children and sets of siblings, the attorneys representing them said in court papers.
One woman, identified in the class-action suit filed against the state of Florida as "Yanet Doe," traveled from San Antonio to Martha's Vineyard with her 11-year-old son and husband, the suit states.
One woman, identified in the suit as "Yanet Doe," traveled from San Antonio to Martha's Vineyard with her 11-year-old son and husband.
"If Plaintiff Yanet Doe and her family had known that they would be deposited in Martha's Vineyard, or that the Defendants would use them as a political ploy in order to send a message about their political views on immigration, and force photographs of Plaintiff Yanet Doe and her family into the national media, Plaintiff Yanet Doe and her family would not ... have boarded the plane to Massachusetts," the suit states.
Yanet Doe now worries she may miss key immigration hearings as a result of the travel, according to the suit.
Other migrants on the planes included "Pablo Doe" and his two brothers, according to the suit. The brothers were promised money, jobs, English classes and other aid, the suit alleges, but after arriving in Martha's Vineyard they "felt helpless, defrauded, and desperate."
Pablo Doe "felt anxious and confused," the suit states. "As a result of the scheme, he suffers from lack of sleep."
The migrants who are suing Florida "fled" their home country of Venezuela "in a desperate attempt to protect themselves and their families," according to the suit.
"They are as deserving of dignity and empathy as anyone among us," their attorneys wrote.
Who flew the migrants and how
Florida's state government has given about $1.6 million of the $12 million allocated to transporting migrants to a helicopter operator named Vertol Systems, according to public records. More specifically, Florida first paid Vertol Systems $615,000 on Sept. 8, six days before the migrants were flown to Martha's Vineyard.
But how Vertol has itemized and spent that money for its operations is unclear. Neither the Destin, Florida-based company nor the governor's office have released records regarding their contracts or how Vertol has disbursed the funds.
Airport industry experts say it's likely Vertol is operating as a middleman between Florida and the airline Ultimate Jet Charters, which carried the migrants.
The state paid Vertol Systems another $950,000 on Sept. 19, one day before other migrants in San Antonio told The Miami Herald that they were scheduled to fly on a "clandestine" flight to Delaware -- Biden's home state. The Delaware-bound plane was canceled Sept. 20, the morning the migrants were supposed to depart, the Herald reported.
DeSantis's office did not return ABC News' request for comment regarding whether Florida had plans to send migrants from Texas to Delaware on Sept. 20.
DeSantis -- who has suggested that more migrant flights are coming -- was vague when asked last week about how the state's most recent payment was spent by Vertol Systems
"The money is there. And then as expenses are done it'll get drawn down. But that has not been put to use necessarily. Remember there's a lot of other things that go on, other than just the transport," he said at a press conference on Sept. 22.
Vertol Systems has been linked to other Republicans including Larry Keefe, the Florida chief public safety czar whom DeSantis appointed in 2021 to crack down on unauthorized immigration. Keefe, a lawyer, represented Vertol Systems in a series of lawsuits from 2010 through 2017. (NBC News first reported the connection.)
Rep. Matt Gaetz, who represents the Panhandle district where Vertol Systems is based, was also listed as a lawyer for the company in a 2010 civil case, before he was elected to Congress.
Vertol has a history of donating to Republicans.
DeSantis has said the migrants were given informational brochures by a third-party vendor -- though it's unclear if that vendor was Vertol -- before they arrived in Martha's Vineyard. Photos of these brochures, provided to ABC News by DeSantis' office, show they contain information in both English and Spanish from the Massachusetts Office for Refugee and Immigrants about benefits that immigrants and refugees can receive.
Attorneys for the migrants said in their class-action suit that the brochures were not produced by Massachusetts state officials.
"They all signed consent forms to go," DeSantis said in an interview with Sean Hannity on Sept. 19. "And then the vendor that is doing this for Florida provided them with a packet that had a map of Martha's Vineyard, it had the numbers for different services on Martha's Vineyard and then it had numbers for the overall agencies in Massachusetts that handles immigration and refugees."
DeSantis' office sent ABC News a redacted form with the title "Official Consent to Transport" and said it was "for the flight to MA."
Whoever filled out the form wrote the abbreviation "TX" to indicate the place of departure and "MA" to indicate the place of arrival, according to the copy provided by DeSantis' office. The form was dated Sept. 13, the day before the flights to Martha's Vineyard
DeSantis's office did not respond to questions about whether a migrant had filled out the redacted consent form that was sent to ABC News. His office also did not respond when asked if every single migrant who was transported to Martha's Vineyard had signed a consent form.
"Nothing contained in this form -- even if every migrant signed it fully understanding the Spanish text -- makes it a consent to be flown to Martha's Vineyard if they were told they were going somewhere else," Rachel Self, an immigration attorney representing some of the migrants, told ABC News. The class-action suit alleges the migrants were told they were going to Boston or Washington, D.C.
What is still unknown
The two suits filed in response to the migrant flights and the San Antonio criminal investigation raise questions about whether the migrants were manipulated -- including by someone allegedly working with DeSantis who is identified in the class-action suit only as "Perla" -- and whether the money that helped transport them was illegally used.
It also remains unclear if there will be future migrant flights; DeSantis had said he intended to keep highlighting the issue of migration.
Are more migrant flights coming?
The day after migrants arrived in Martha's Vineyard, DeSantis hinted that there were more flights coming.
"We're not a sanctuary state, and it's better to be able to go to a sanctuary jurisdiction," he said at the Sept. 15 press conference. "And yes, we will help facilitate that transport."
The next day, he doubled down, saying Florida would pay to relocate "more and more" migrants and also said there would be "buses like Texas."
But no other migrants have yet been flown by Florida authorities.
Who is 'Perla'?
Among the defendants in the migrants' class-action suit is a woman identified only as "Perla," whom the migrants' attorneys allege was key in helping gather them for the flights to Martha's Vineyard.
But the attorneys wrote in the suit that they don't believe they know her real name.
The suit claims Perla "targeted many of the putative class members in San Antonio, Texas, to induce them onto the flights to Martha's Vineyard." According to the suit, Perla allegedly sought out migrants outside a shelter, asking "if they needed help" and then helped take some of the migrants to a local hotel and ultimately onto the chartered flights.
Perla also allegedly had some of the migrants sign paperwork in exchange for McDonald's gift cards. "She did not explain what the document stated, and it was not completely translated to Spanish: an entire paragraph about liability and transport was not translated at all, and language specifying that the journey would take place from Texas to Massachusetts was not translated at all either," the suit claims.
This account of Perla's conduct echoes what one of the migrants on the flights, a man named Jose, told The Washington Post.
The Post report describes Perla as "a smiling blond-haired woman in a cowboy hat" who was using a "rented white SUV" as she looked for migrants in San Antonio.
The legal challenges: Was the money illegally spent on non-Florida migrants?
DeSantis and his administration are facing two lawsuits -- the class-action complaint filed on behalf of some of the migrants who were sent to Martha's Vineyard and another from a Florida lawmaker.
The suit filed by Democratic state Sen. Jason Pizzo alleges that Florida misused state funds for transporting the migrants because the people were transported from Texas to Massachusetts rather than from Florida.
Pizzo pointed to language in a section of the state budget that says the earmarked $12 million is to implement "a program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state."
But because the migrants were not originally transported from Florida -- a fact DeSantis has also conceded -- that could support Pizzo's claim, outside experts say.
"'From' is a reasonably specific word in English," Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University's School of Law, told ABC News. "This has to be transportation of people from Florida."
"There's at least on the face of it a clear showing that [DeSantis] violated the statute appropriating the money," Chishti added.
DeSantis has said the choice to send migrants from Texas and not Florida was a way to prevent a large group of migrants from coming to his state. The governor maintains that many of the migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas plan to travel to Florida and that it's easier to meet them at the source.
Chishti said if Pizzo's lawsuit is successful, the court can stop DeSantis from pulling further from the $12 million to transport migrants from other states.
In wake of class-action suit allegations, were the migrants tricked?
The federal class-action lawsuit filed on Sept. 20 by Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) is on behalf of at least three migrants who were sent to Martha's Vineyard.
The suit claims the migrants were deprived of their rights through a conspiracy by Florida officials, including DeSantis. The suit describes an alleged pattern of deceit, with a group of unnamed defendants working with DeSantis and the state and "trolling streets outside of a migrant shelter in Texas and other similar locales, pretending to be good Samaritans offering humanitarian assistance."
The suit alleges the migrants were persuaded under "false promises and false representations" to board the planes to Martha's Vineyard. They were told the flights were headed to Boston or Washington, the suit states, and that they could expect to receive certain benefits upon arrival, including employment, housing and education opportunities.
On Thursday, LCR sent letters to Vertol Systems and Ultimate JetCharters warning the companies to keep all evidence connected to the migrant flights.
LCR told the companies to “preserve immediately any and all documents, electronically stored information, and tangible things, stored in any medium, including but not limited to emails, video or audio footage, phone logs, visitor logs, payment records, manifests, text messages, and social media posts, that are or may potentially be relevant to the facts and claims” in LCR's suit. (Neither Vertol nor Ultimate JetCharters has responded to ABC News' requests for comment.)
Chishti said the success of the class-action suit comes down to whether the migrants' attorneys can prove that they were harmed by being transported to Martha's Vineyard.
"At the end of the day, what's the harm? What harm did it lead to? If they suffered a loss … that is actionable," he said.
He also cautioned that DeSantis' conduct did not necessarily implicate him, even if the court confirms there was wrongdoing: "Even if it is true, it's going to be an official in a Florida agency who did it -- DeSantis is not going to be personally liable for luring people onto the flight. There's six degrees of separation between that luring and DeSantis."
Ahilan Arulanantham, co-director of the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at the University of California at Los Angeles' School of Law, said that "nobody can induce anybody to get on a bus and go travel long distances or a plane for that matter by lying to them. That is fraud. It is fraud under civil law. ... That is definitely potentially in play here, depending on the exact facts."
Arulanantham was more skeptical of a potential claim of kidnapping -- which has been lobbed by some critics of the migrant flights. "It's not inconceivable, but it seems like quite a stretch from what I'm hearing, whereas fraud feels like it fits better," he said.
He, Chishti and the legal experts who spoke with ABC News stressed that they were limited in assessing the situation as the facts were still emerging.
"This is one of these cases where the optics are so bad. But there's a huge gap between terrible optics and legal liability," Chishti said.
"A lot of this depends on evidence," he said.
David Leopold, a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said he had "serious ethical and moral concerns about what's going on here" but noted, "I don't think we know enough yet."
"I think a lot of questions have to be answered," he said.
ABC News' Abby Cruz, Armando Garcia and Alexandra Hutzler contributed to this report.