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Could sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard break the law?

"Our clients were lied to, and many misrepresentations were made. That could expose those actors to both civil and criminal liability."

Two planes of migrants from Venezuela arrived suddenly Wednesday night on Martha's Vineyard. Jonathan Wiggs / Globe Staff

As several migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard this week claim they were lured onto a plane with deceptive promises, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s political ploy has raised a number of legal questions, with some critics drawing comparisons to kidnapping.

About 40 to 50 Venezuelan migrants arrived on the island via two chartered planes and have since been offered shelter at Joint Base Cape Cod.

In a media release Friday, DeSantis’s office doubled down on Florida’s immigration relocation program.

“Florida is not a sanctuary state,” the DeSantis administration stated. “We will continue to facilitate a program to assist the transportation of illegal immigrants to sanctuary cities and states across the country.”

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State Sen. Julian Cyr, who represents Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod, said in a statement that the community “moved heaven and earth” to welcome and care for the migrants. 

More from Martha's Vineyard

However, “It is now apparent that these migrant families were misled — indeed manipulated — into embarking on this journey,” he added. “Capitalizing on vulnerable families, who are simply seeking a better life, for a political stunt is disgusting.”

But was there a crime? 

Nonprofit representing migrants: ‘Our clients were lied to’

Speaking about the transport during the Globe Summit Friday, U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins said her office will be taking guidance from the Department of Justice and will be “looking long and hard … to see any and all legal action that we might be able to take.”

“I have already reached out to the Department of Justice to get some guidance, because we are not the only entity or location where this has happened,” she said.

“I assure you that I am thinking long and hard about what we can do with respect to the individuals that are using people, quite frankly, and sending them to our commonwealth where we welcome people,” she added.

A man, part of a group of migrants, flashes a thumbs up Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday flew two planes of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, escalating a tactic by Republican governors to draw attention to what they consider to be the Biden administration’s failed border policies. (Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette via AP) – The Associated Press

California Gov. Gavin Newsom called on Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice to investigate whether the transport violated federal law. Likewise, local nonprofit Lawyers for Civil Rights urged law enforcement to investigate criminal charges against DeSantis and any accomplices. 

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“Although I’m not a criminal attorney, it’s apparent to us that there were criminal laws that were violated by this conduct,” LCR Litigation Director Oren Sellstrom said in an interview. “So we have asked both state and federal law enforcement authorities to investigate and prosecute in appropriate cases for human trafficking, false imprisonment, kidnapping — a variety of laws that may have been broken here by this conduct.”

There might also be a case for fraud, according to Sellstrom.

“Our clients were lied to, and many misrepresentations were made,” he said. “That could expose those actors to both civil and criminal liability.”

Rachel Self, a Boston immigration attorney, alleged that Department of Homeland Security agents falsified addresses on the migrants’ paperwork before allowing them to board the planes, according to Newsweek

As a result, she said, the migrants are required to check in with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office nearest to those addresses — some of them as far away as Tacoma, Washington — or be removed from the U.S. 

What we don’t know

However, many unknowns remain at this point. 

“Part of what’s important about the factual investigation is determining exactly who was doing what, and often for our clients, that was not made apparent,” Sellstrom said. 

A woman, part of a group of migrants that had just arrived, holds a child as they are fed outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard. – Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette via AP

He said there were incidents where someone told the migrants while they were in Texas, “Don’t worry if you have an immigration hearing here in Texas; we will take care of that, even if you board the plane and go to Massachusetts.”

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“Exactly who was doing what and filling out what forms on their behalf — that is unclear,” Sellstrom continued. “But what is clear is that this political stunt put our clients in significant peril, and it has implications for their ability to seek immigration relief to which they’re entitled.”

Legal experts who spoke with The Washington Post said too little is known at this point to draw firm conclusions on whether it was illegal to transport the migrants to another state. 

Sarah Sherman-Stokes, who teaches immigration law at Boston University School of Law, told the newspaper that while much remains unknown, “This very well might be legal with a capital L.”

Ways to help

A wave of donations and volunteerism followed the migrants’ arrival on Martha’s Vineyard. Support has also come in the form of pro bono legal support, according to Sellstrom.

“Lawyers for Civil Rights is coordinating that advocacy from the legal side and we welcome additional involvement,” he said. Lawyers for Civil Rights also accepts donations.

Boston.com Senior Writer Dialynn Dwyer contributed to this report.

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