Migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard were given brochures with false promises of aid and jobs. Who made them?

People seeking asylum in the US were handed official-looking documents before boarding flights to Massachusetts booked by Governor Ron DeSantis, but the agency named on them did not make them. Lawyers are demanding answers, Alex Woodward reports

Tuesday 20 September 2022 00:22 BST
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(Lawyers for Civil Rights)

Before they boarded planes bound for Martha’s Vineyard, a group of about 50 migrants in San Antonio, Texas, were handed a trifold brochure titled “Massachusetts Refugee Benefits.”

A front cover included a photograph of a Massachusetts Department of Transportation highway sign reading “Massachusetts Welcomes You” above an illustration of the state.

On the back, printed in English and Spanish was the name and phone number and website for the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants, a state agency that aids resettlement agencies and works with community groups to provide assistance to newly arrived refugees.

But the agency had nothing to do with the flier. The flier was mocked up to look like a government document, falsely suggesting that the group of mostly Venzeulan people seeking asylum in the US would be eligible for cash assistance, housing, food, job training, job interviews and other benefits.

“These brochures are not ours and not sure who prints or distributes them, at this point,” office chief of staff Falah Hashem told The Independent.

The brochure suggested the passengers would be eligible – if in contact with the agency and other community- and faith-based groups listed in the flier – for up to eight months of financial assistance, help with registering their children for schools, and furnishing their homes, which they would also get help finding.

Immigration attorney Matt Cameron told Popular Information, which first reported the brochures, that the migrants who boarded the planes “absolutely do not have access to cash, housing, and other resettlement benefits.”

The brochures were obtained by Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-area legal group representing 30 migrants who were among the group sent from Texas to the small island off the coast of Massachusetts last week.

On Friday, after spending two nights at a local church with support from a range of community groups and state and local agencies, the group was transferred to a larger shelter operation in Cape Cod. There, they were provided with separate rooms, healthcare and legal aid.

In letters to US Attorney Rachael Rollins and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, Lawyers for Civil Rights argued that “individuals, working in concert with the Florida governor, made numerous false promises to our clients, including of work opportunities, schooling for their children, and immigration assistance, in order to induce them to travel.”

The passengers were told that the plane would be landing in Martha’s Vineyard, not Boston, only when the flight was in mid-air, according to executive director Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal and litigation director Oren Sellstrom.

“Once the planes landed, those who had induced our clients to travel under these false pretenses disappeared, leaving our clients to learn that the offers of assistance had all been a ruse to exploit them for political purposes,” they wrote.

Many of the group’s clients were held in hotels until the flights were filled and booked, according to the attorneys.

“This type of conspiracy to deprive our clients of their liberty and civil rights and interfere with federal immigration proceedings must be thoroughly investigated for violations of criminal laws,” they wrote.

On 19 September, the sheriff of Bexas County, Texas announced his office opened an investigation into whether the migrants were “lured” to the planes and “ultimately left to fend for themselves” in Massachusetts.

A family leaves Martha’s Vineyard for a larger shelter in Cape Cod on 16 September.
A family leaves Martha’s Vineyard for a larger shelter in Cape Cod on 16 September. (AP)

So much remains unclear about the migrants’ journey from Texas to Massachusetts, how Florida officials are identifying and collecting migrants in other states to be sent to so-called “sanctuary” states and cities, and how state funding earmarked for Governor Ron DeSantis’s maneuver is paying for it from several states away.

Florida’s Department of Transportation paid Oregon-based aviation firm Vertol Systems Company $615,000 on 8 September, according to state records.

The reason: “RELOCATION PROGRAM OF UNAUTHORIZED ALIENS”.

One week later, the group of migrants were flown from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, for which Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has taken credit and defended – as part of a $12m operation to remove migrants from the state. By Monday, Vertol Systems Company’s website was no longer in operation.

Requests for comment from The Independent – including how the company uses state funds – have not been returned.

A family leaves the Migrant Resource Center in San Antonio, Texas on 19 September.
A family leaves the Migrant Resource Center in San Antonio, Texas on 19 September. (Getty Images)

Following economic and political collapse, medicine and food shortages and violence in Venezuela, millions of people have fled.

The number of Venezuelans seeking entry into the US has steadily climbed in recent years. In July, US Customs and Border Protection officials reported encounters with Venezeulan migrants reached more than 17,000, triple the number that was reported one month earlier.

“Failing” regimes in Venezuela as well as Cuba and Nicaragua “are driving a new wave of migration across the Western Hemisphere, including the recent increase in encounters at the southwest US border,” according to a statement from US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus.

Meanwhile, Republican governors in Arizona, Florida and Texas have bused thousands of migrants from out of their states, spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to do so, in protest of what they have characterised as President Joe Biden’s “open border” agenda.

After reaching the border, and turning themselves to authorities, migrants requesting asylum must undergo a “credible fear screening” to determine whether their return to their home countries could expose them to further persecution or threats. Following a screening, they are released while awaiting a hearing for their asylum case.

It was at this point, near San Antonio’s Migrant Resources Center, that the group of migrants targeted by people ostensibly working through Governor DeSantis’s operation were sent to Massachusetts.

Ted Cruz says half a million migrants should be sent to DC

Disrupting an already-complicated asylum process by sending people 2,000 miles from where those claims began could invite more chaos into the migrants’ lives, immigration attorneys and advocates told The Independent last week.

Following the recent flights and busing from Texas Governor Greg Abbott to cities across the US, San Antonio has advised migrants “not to accept rides or any other assistance from strangers” outside the centre.

The League of United Latin American Citizens, the largest Latino civil rights organisation in the nation, is circulating “Wanted” fliers in the city to seek information about a woman that several migrants said had deceived them with false promises of employment and aid.

The organisation has offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to her “identification, arrest and conviction.”

The group said she is wanted for “aiding and abetting in a conspiracy to have innocent refugees commit crimes by offering work” without legal work permits, “lying and deceiving” them while being used as “political props,” and “fraud and possible civil rights violations.”

Eduardo Linares told the Texas Tribune that he was promised help with rent and employment, and “that was the only option left to us.” He ultimately turned down the offer.

“She promised them that they would get three months of work paid,” group’s national president, Domingo Garcia, told The Washington Post. “Under immigration law, they are here under parole. They have a court date. It is illegal for them to work. So she is enticing them to work which is a federal offense. She is enticing them to break the law.”

Governor DeSantis’s administration has repeatedly defended the programme, telling reporters last week that he intends to “exhaust” the $12m earmarked for the cause.

“I got $12m for us to use, and so we are gonna use it,” he said on Friday. “And you’re gonna see more and more.”

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