Probe opened into Florida’s ‘luring’ of migrants onto planes

Authorities in Texas have opened a criminal investigation into Gov. Ron DeSantis’ operation to fly roughly 50 Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard last week.

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar announced at a news conference Monday that his office is investigating whether the migrants were the victims of a crime, saying they were “lured under false pretenses.” Many migrants said they agreed to fly from San Antonio to the Massachusetts island after being promised jobs. But there was no work waiting.

“I believe people need to be held accountable for it to the extent possible,” Salazar said. “At this point, I’m not able to definitively say here’s the statute that they broke, either federal, state or local, but what I can tell you is it’s wrong. Just from a human rights perspective, what was done to these folks is wrong.”

DeSantis took responsibility for the two charter flights last week, saying they were part of a state program to relocate migrants from Florida, although the group of Venezuelans was in San Antonio.

Salazar, who is a Democrat, called the flights “little more than a video op.” He did not name DeSantis.

He also said his office was working with a private attorney for the migrants, as well as advocacy groups, and was preparing to cooperate with federal agencies “should the need arise.”

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar addresses the media during a Facebook Live in which he announced a criminal investigation into the state of Florida flying roughly 50 migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard. Courtesy Facebook

In response to a request for comment, Jeremy Redfern, DeSantis’ deputy press secretary did not answer with words.

READ MORE: ‘Easy pickings’: In Texas town where Martha’s Vineyard ordeal began, few options for migrants

Instead, he emailed a screenshot of a news story with the headline: “Bexar County Sheriff Salazar says Biden admin’s handling of immigration ‘isn’t working.’ “

The migrants said they were recruited for the Martha’s Vineyard trip with falsehoods.

Several said that a woman known as “Perla” approached them outside a migrant resource center in San Antonio and offered them jobs and assistance if they flew to Massachusetts. Those claims of employment and other opportunities turned out to be false as officials on Martha’s Vineyard were unprepared for their arrival last Wednesday.

In addition, brochures provided to the migrants said they could receive cash assistance and employment services after landing. The brochures included the phone number and website of the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants. The office said it did not print the brochures, which were shared with the Herald by Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based legal group representing some of the migrants.

While “Perla’s” full name and connections have not yet been publicly revealed, Salazar suggested the investigation could reach Florida.

“If somebody’s in Florida and they need to be brought here to be brought to justice, that’s just paperwork at that point,” the sheriff said.

He said investigators had obtained the names of “persons of interest” but declined to release them yet.

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Brochure Courtesy Lawyers for Civil Rights

The migrants have legal status in the United States, having presented themselves to US authorities after crossing the border in Texas and seeking asylum status.

DeSantis has said the flights were financed with Florida taxpayer money meant to remove migrants from Florida. All the migrants boarded in San Antonio, which is in Bexar County, although the planes stopped in Florida’s Panhandle to refuel.

Transporting migrants from Texas with Florida money appears to conflict with language included in the state budget that authorized the $12 million program.

Passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and supported by most Democrats, the budget instructed the Florida Department of Transportation to spend the funds “to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.”

Migrant Sonia, 30, wipes away tears in Eagle Pass as she remembers how she left her child in Venezuela in hope of providing a better life for them both. Carl Just

No migrants who crossed the border Sunday in Eagle Pass, Texas, told the Miami Herald they wanted to go to Florida. Instead, most hoped to travel to New York.

They spoke of a dangerous journey to the United States and an uncertain future now that they’re here.

None had the money for a $50 bus ticket to San Antonio, the nearest city.

Advocates say that makes them easy prey for scammers.

This story was originally published September 19, 2022 6:02 PM.

Profile Image of Sarah Blaskey

Sarah Blaskey is an award-winning investigative reporter for the Miami Herald and the data specialist for the investigations team. She is a co-author of “The Grifter’s Club: Trump, Mar-a-Lago, and the Selling of the Presidency” and holds a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.

Profile Image of Nicholas Nehamas

Nicholas Nehamas is an investigative reporter at the Miami Herald, where he was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that broke the Panama Papers in 2016. He and his Herald colleagues were also named Pulitzer finalists in 2019 for the series “Dirty Gold, Clean Cash.” He is the co-author of two books: “The Grifter’s Club: Trump, Mar-a-Lago, and the Selling of the Presidency” and “Dirty Gold: The Rise and Fall of an International Smuggling Ring.” He joined the Herald in 2014.
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