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Migrants and civil rights attorneys file federal lawsuit against DeSantis administration

Class action lawsuit details ‘fraudulent and discriminatory scheme’ to move migrants out of Texas

Alex Woodward
New York
Tuesday 20 September 2022 22:40 BST
Sheriff says migrants were 'lured' onto flights to Massachusetts

Attorneys for a group of migrants who boarded unannounced flights to Martha’s Vineyard from San Antonio, Texas have filed a federal class action lawsuit against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who allegedly directed a “fraudulent and discriminatory scheme” to transport a group of 50 people, including families with small children, as part of a political stunt.

The lawsuit alleges the governor and members of his administration targeted immigrants who were recently released from shelters with false promises of job opportunities, education and financial assistance before they landed on the island with only volunteered support from local groups and emergency assistance from state agencies.

Attorneys allege that the migrants were exploited for “political purposes” after arriving on the island last week.

“No human being should be used as a political pawn in the nation’s highly polarized debate over immigration,” Lawyers for Civil Rights executive director Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal said in a statement.

The lawsuit details how three Venezeulan migrants and their families named in the lawsuit – including a woman with an 11-year-old son – were “rounded up” and promised benefits before boarding flights.

It also details their harrowing journeys from Venezuela, where they fled unrest, crime and threats of violence in the wake economic and political collapse in that country, followed by their surrender to US authorities at the US-Mexico border, subsequent detentions and release and emotional damages and anxiety after realising they were defrauded while photographs of them circulated across international media.

After plaintiffs were released and staying in local shelters, despite following proper channels for legal immigration, defendants “manipulated them, stripped them of their dignity, deprived them of their liberty, bodily autonomy, due process and equal protection under the law,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also includes two unnamed defendents who “targeted” many of the people who boarded the flights, as well as three other unnamed defendants who participated in the alleged scheme.

Those allegations mirror claims from migrants who spoke with reporters about the ordeal, including multiple allegations that a woman identified only as “Perla” was central to an alleged effort to coerce migrants to board the planes, providing cash and McDonald’s gift cards to help recruit others.

The League of United Latin American Citizens, the largest Latino civil rights organisation in the nation, is also circulating “Wanted” fliers in San Antonio for information leading to Perla’s identity. The organisation has offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to her “identification, arrest and conviction.”

The lawsuit also includes details about a false brochure, mocked up to look like an official government-supported document that advertised “refugee” assistance from Massachusetts agencies but was not created nor sanctioned by the state agency that supports refugee aid.

After spending two nights in a church shelter on the small island of Martha’s Vineyard, where community groups mobilised to offer food, clothing and other assistance, migrants who arrived in Massachusetts were moved to a larger shelter operation on the mainland on 16 September, with separate rooms and medical and legal support.

State officials report that the families are in “good health and good spirits,” with access to legal services, humanitarian aid and interpreters.

Officials in Delaware and at the White House, meanwhile, are bracing for the possible arrival of another plane with migrants from Texas. A plane was due to land near Delaware’s coast on 20 September roughly 20 miles from President Joe Biden’s home in Rehoboth Beach.

Governor DeSantis told reporters on Tuesday that he “cannot confirm” reports of a second flight.

His administration has taken credit for the Martha’s Vineyard stunt and repeatedly defended his actions, backed by a $12m plan in the state’s budget. In total, the state has paid an aviation firm at least $1.56m for the state’s “relocation program of unauthorized aliens” thus far.

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