‘They were preyed upon’: immigration lawyers denounce transport of migrants

<span>Photograph: Cristóbal Herrera/EPA</span>
Photograph: Cristóbal Herrera/EPA

In the wake of the transport of nearly 50 Venezuelan asylum seekers and migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard by Florida’s rightwing Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, immigration lawyers representing the group have labeled the move as an “appalling” political stunt that should never be allowed to happen again.

Related: Democrats call for justice department to investigate migrant flights

DeSantis – who is both an ally and a rival to Donald Trump – has claimed responsibility for the flight as an attempt to protest against Joe Biden’s immigration policy. But the move had been widely condemned as racist and abusive towards those dumped on the upmarket resort island in Massachusetts.

Mirian Albert, a lawyer for the group Lawyers for Civil rights, said: “Lawyers for Civil Rights was not looking for this fight. Neither were our clients. But we’re more than ready to take this on. And we’re not gonna let this happen again – not on our watch.”

The result of the efforts of Albert and her colleagues was a federal class-action lawsuit against DeSantis and others, which could see the extremist Republican governor face severe consequences for violating federal immigration law by engaging in acts some legal experts have deemed human trafficking or smuggling.

“What we hope to do with the class action that we filed is stop the shipment of immigrants across state lines by misrepresentation and fraudulent efforts, specifically from Ron DeSantis, and the state of Florida,” Albert said. “And we hope to seek a nationwide injunction to make that happen, and then also to make our clients whole again. They were stripped of their integrity throughout this whole process. And I think that making sure that they feel whole is also important here.”

DeSantis’s actions have only been the most extreme of a wave of efforts to transport migrants by Republican governors. Leaders in Texas and Arizona have bussed them to Chicago, New York and Washington DC, also sparking widespread condemnation for using a complex human situation for political theatre.

Target communities of the bussing and flights have reacted by welcoming the migrants, including in Martha’s Vineyard.

Sarang Sekhavat, political director for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said he began the work of calling pro-bono attorneys for the arrivals as soon as the news broke.

“My initial reaction was just confusion. It didn’t make any sense. Even for the political point that Governor DeSantis is trying to make, complaining about what [he’s] seeing in [his] state, why are you going to another state to get people? Why pull people out of Texas, if your complaint is in your state?,” he said.

Sekhavat added: “Second off, these are asylum seekers – folks who are lawfully present in the country. The DeSantis administration keeps talking about illegal immigrants. That’s not what these are.”

Despite the overwhelming backlash, DeSantis doubled down on his actions and vowed to continue to transport more migrants to self-declared sanctuary cities, despite Martha’s Vineyard having no such designation.

DeSantis said: “The legislature gave me $12m [for migrant transport]. We’re going to spend every penny of that to make sure we’re protecting the people of the state of Florida.

In response to DeSantis, Sekhavat said: “Send them, that’s fine. What I think the state of Massachusetts showed last week is that we have a lot more compassion and humanity than he does.”

Albert traveled from Boston to catch the ferry to the Vineyard and described the scene she found as “extremely outrageous”.

“We were just trying to talk to families and individuals about how this event occurred and what led up to it. I was distressed. It’s so disorienting to put myself in their shoes and to imagine getting on a plane and then landing somewhere that’s completely unfamiliar to you. And then not having anyone to call or not being able to get any of your needs met.”

Multilingual brochures given to these individuals by their transporters, shared by Lawyers for Civil Rights, promise employment, food assistance, school registration for children and housing if they got on the plane to Massachusetts.

“I can only imagine how terrifying that must have been, especially for the mothers who weren’t in the group. It is appalling to think that politicians are using human beings as political pawns to just make a political statement,” Albert said.

“[They were] feeling frauded, feeling tricked, feelings of desperation. A mother mentioned that she started crying when she landed, because she just didn’t know what was going to happen. It was not OK.”

Island residents rallied to quickly gather food and supplies and set up shelter. There were reports of locals helping set up St Andrew’s Episcopal church to house the new visitors and high-school students in the area stepping in to provide Spanish translation services.

But, despite DeSantis’s political stunt, there could be more legal implications in store for him in the wake of the flight. Criminal investigations in both Texas and Massachusetts could result in state charges for DeSantis, as well.

Javier Salazar, sheriff of Bexar county in San Antonio, said: “I believe that they were preyed upon. Somebody came from out of state and preyed upon these people, lured them with promises of a better life which is what they were absolutely looking for, and hoodwinked into making this trip to Florida and then onward to Martha’s Vineyard for what I believe to be nothing more than political posturing.”