Sheriff investigates DeSantis' migrant flight as attorneys sue, claiming trip was manipulative
The Bexar County, Texas, sheriff believes the migrants "were preyed upon."
A Texas sheriff said Monday he was opening a criminal investigation into Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' migrant flight to Martha's Vineyard as the stunt continues to draw criticism from Democrats and even some Republicans and DeSantis defends what he calls a protest of border policies.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar announced the probe on Monday night, saying that his office believes the migrants who were shuttled to the Massachusetts island on Sept. 14 were lured under false pretenses, which DeSantis denies.
"What infuriates me the most about this case is that here we have 48 people that are already on hard times, right?" Salazar said at a press conference. "They are here legally, in our country. At that point, they have every right to be where they are. And I believe that they were preyed upon."
Immigration attorneys working with some of the asylum-seekers told ABC News that the migrants were given misleading information, including brochures, about benefits they could receive in Massachusetts.
A civil rights group representing at least three of the affected migrants on Tuesday filed a class-action lawsuit against DeSantis and other Florida officials, claiming their clients were lured under false pretenses as part of a "political stunt." In response, DeSantis' office told ABC News that the migrants were sent on a "voluntary basis."
The governor has defended the migrant drop-off as a protest of President Joe Biden's immigration policies as border encounters remain at a record high. DeSantis has repeatedly insisted the migrants volunteered to be taken to Martha's Vineyard from Texas.
"Why wouldn't they want to go, given where they were?" he said during an appearance on Sean Hannity's Fox News show on Monday night. "They were in really, really bad shape."
What potential violations are being investigated?
Salazar said Monday that his office believes a Venezuelan migrant was paid a "bird-dog fee" to lure roughly 50 migrants to be taken to Martha's Vineyard, where they would be promised work and a better life.
"There's a high possibility that the laws were broken here in the state of Texas in Bexar County," Salazar said.
But he declined to reveal any specific statutes he thinks may have been violated at the federal, state or local level.
He also didn't identify any suspects.
"We do have the names of some suspects involved that we believe are persons of interest in this case at this point, but I won't be parting with those names," he said. "To be fair, I think everybody on this call knows who those names are already but suffice it to say we will be opening this case."
"We're going to discover what extent the law can hold these people accountable," he added.
Asked to comment on Salazar's claims about migrants being lured, DeSantis told ABC News on Tuesday: "That's false."
During an interview on ABC News Live Prime on Tuesday, Salazar told Linsey Davis that his office has at least one person of interest identified by name and photos of others that they are working to identify.
He said they are also communicating with attorneys representing some of the asylum-seekers to find potential victims and witnesses.
"If we're able to prove up that they were transported from here under false pretenses, that could be tantamount to criminal conduct and will be dealt with accordingly," Salazar said.
Attorneys say DeSantis brochures were misleading
Lawyers representing the migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard via two chartered planes told ABC News that the information given to them before the journey was misleading because the migrants aren't technically refugees. These people are seeking asylum but have not yet attained that status, the attorneys said.
Millions of Venezuelans have fled the country since 2014, hoping to escape political turmoil and economic strife. U.S. relations are strained with the country – which has for years been under punishing U.S. sanctions levied in opposition to the country's president -- and Venezuelans are typically exempt from being quickly expelled under Title 42, a Trump-era policy used to quickly expel migrants because of the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ivan Espinoza-Marigal, a leading lawyer representing many of the migrants, told ABC that most of the migrants' current status is under humanitarian parole and therefore they are not eligible for the benefits described in the pamphlet they received.
"Only people who have already been granted refugee status are eligible," American Immigration Council Policy Director Aaron Reichlin-Melnick told ABC News. "Asylum-seekers do not receive any federal assistance and cannot receive work authorization until at least six months after applying for asylum."
DeSantis has pointed to the brochures given out by a vendor working with the state of Florida to transport the migrants as proof they weren't duped about where they were going or what would be available to them once they arrived.
"They all signed consent forms to go," he told Hannity. "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."
Rachel Self, an immigration attorney helping migrants who arrived in Martha's Vineyard, said the map on the brochures was "cartoonishly simple" and contained information on how migrants could change their address with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) when they relocated.
"This is especially troubling as anyone with even the most basic understanding of the immigration proceedings knows that USCIS was not the agency with whom the migrants would have to record their addresses and has nothing to do with their cases in any way," Self said.
Typically, migrants granted humanitarian parole and looking to file an asylum claim have mandatory court hearings scheduled in locations where they have said they have family or at courts closest to where they were processed by immigration authorities. That means that migrants who went unknowingly or under false pretenses to Martha's Vineyard are at risk of missing those court dates, which may result in them being fast-tracked for deportation.
"The brochure is full of lies for this particular group of people. Material misrepresentations made in furtherance of the unlawful scheme," Self, one of the attorneys, told ABC News.
Class-action lawsuit filed against DeSantis
The group Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) filed a federal civil rights class action lawsuit on Tuesday against DeSantis, Florida Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue "and their accomplices" over what the attorneys called a "fraudulent and discriminatory" plan to send migrants to Martha's Vineyard without the appropriate resources in place.
The group filed the lawsuit on behalf of at least three affected people whom they claim were "targeted and induced" to board the planes under false pretenses. They allege in the suit that DeSantis and others focused on migrants who were released from shelters and promised them job opportunities, schooling for their children and immigration assistance.
The attorneys say in the suit that the migrants were not told they were going to Martha's Vineyard until right before landing. The lawsuit claims that once the planes landed, the people who had worked get the migrants on board "disappeared" and left them to realize it was all a ruse.
"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 group said.
The complaint also alleges that the money spent to transport the plaintiffs was improperly utilized from the federal Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund, which is only authorized for COVID-19-related uses.
LCR is seeking "compensatory, emotional distress, and punitive damages."
ABC News has contacted DeSantis' office and the Florida Department of Transportation for comment on the lawsuit.
What DeSantis' team is saying
Taryn Fenske, DeSantis' communications director, responded to the investigation by the Bexar Sheriff's Office in a social media post on Monday.
"Immigrants are more than willing to leave Bexar County after being enticed to cross the border and 'to fend for themselves.' [Florida] provided an opportunity in a sanctuary state [with] resources, as expected - unlike the 53 who died in an abandoned truck in Bexar County in June," Fenske wrote on Twitter.
DeSantis during his appearance on Hannity called the accusations that migrants were deceived "nonsense."
He has promised additional operations to send migrants to so-called "sanctuary jurisdictions," saying last week that he intends to use $12 million from the state's relocation program for more transports.
"Those migrants were being treated horribly by Biden. They were hungry, homeless, they had no opportunity at all. The state of Florida -- it was volunteer -- offered transport to sanctuary jurisdictions," DeSantis said at a press conference on Tuesday as he doubled down on his comments made to Hannity.
Lawmakers weigh in
Members of congressional leadership on Tuesday waded into the ongoing discourse surrounding DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's moves last week to ship migrants to various cities across the U.S.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries lambasted both men during a Tuesday news conference at the Capitol, arguing that the GOP governors needed to "stop behaving like human traffickers." (Abbott and DeSantis have defended their actions as showing the cost and scope of caring for migrants -- in reaction to Biden and Democrats' border policies.)
But Jeffries said, "They are putting politics over people in the most egregious way possible."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed support for the Republicans' actions, saying he "thought it was a good idea" to send the immigrants to blue states.
Though not by name, McConnell defended DeSantis and Abbott by saying on the Senate floor that they were merely giving Biden and the Democrats "a tiny, tiny taste" of what border-state governors have been grappling with for years.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre pushed back on the idea that the GOP leaders were implicating non-border states in sharing the burden of immigration.
"So the way that we see it is -- alerting Fox News and not city or state officials about a plan to abandon children fleeing communism on the side of the street is not burden sharing," Jean-Pierre told reporters during Tuesday's briefing. "That is not the definition that we see of burden sharing. It is a cruel, premeditated political stunt."
ABC News' Miles Cohen, Abby Cruz, Sarah Beth Guevara, Isabella Murray and Quinn Owen contributed to this report.