National

Texas sheriff opens investigation into migrants ‘lured’ to Martha’s Vineyard under ‘false pretenses’

"Somebody saw fit to come from another state, hunt them down, prey upon them and then take advantage of their desperate situation just for the sake of political theater."

A migrant looks out from aboard a ferry that departed from Martha’s Vineyard on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. Migrants shipped to Martha’s Vineyard by Florida’s Republican governor said on Friday that they had been misled about where they were being taken, prompting immigration lawyers to promise legal action as the refugees from Venezuela were relocated temporarily to a federal military base. Matt Cosby/The New York Times

Law enforcement officials in Texas announced Monday that they are opening a criminal investigation into the person or persons that “lured” migrants from San Antonio and arranged for them to be flown to Martha’s Vineyard under “false pretenses.” 

Javier Salazar, Sheriff of Bexar County, Tex. made the announcement in a press conference posted to social media. 

On Sept. 14, he said, a Venezuelan migrant was paid to recruit approximately 50 people from a migrant resource center San Antonio to stay in a local hotel before they were flown to Florida and then Martha’s Vineyard. This was done under false pretenses, Salazar said.

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took credit for the operation soon after the migrants touched down in Massachusetts. 

“They were promised work, they were promised the solution to several of their problems. They were taken to Martha’s Vineyard, from what we can gather, for little more than a photo op, video op,” he said. “Then they were unceremoniously stranded in Martha’s Vineyard.”

Salazar said that the decision to open an investigation was made after conferring with the League of United Latin American Citizens, the largest and oldest Hispanic and Latin-American civil rights organization in the country. He also spoke with members of the local and national media and an attorney who is representing the migrants. 

That attorney is Rachel Self, Salazar said. Self is based in Boston. 

“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 that it’s wrong. Just from a human rights perspective, what was done to these folks is wrong,” Salazar said.

Police do have the names of multiple people believed to be persons of interest in the case, Salazar said, but did not reveal their names. 

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As part of the investigation’s early stages, Salazar said he is hoping to get as close to a firsthand account as possible regarding what the migrants went through while in San Antonio. Police are investigating what was promised to them, and whether or not they signed any paperwork. 

Salazar said that the operation could have infringed on their rights while also putting them in harm’s way.

“Was this strictly a predatory measure? Somebody coming and preying upon people that are here minding their own business and are here legally, not bothering a soul?” Salazar said. “Somebody saw fit to come from another state, hunt them down, prey upon them and then take advantage of their desperate situation just for the sake of political theater… and putting people’s lives in danger.” 

Salazar, an elected Democratic official, said that the case does not have anything to do with political affiliation. His office has not been in contact with the White House, he added, but is open to coordinating with the Biden Administration to investigate whether federal laws were broken as well. 

“Anybody that’s in this country, whether documented or undocumented has certain rights… they still have rights to not be victimized. They still have rights to not be preyed upon.”

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Since the group arrived in Massachusetts, local and national figures have called on law enforcement to investigate. 

State Sen. Julian Cyr and Rep. Dylan Fernandes urged the DOJ to take action Monday. In a Twitter post, Fernandes called the movement of the migrants “inhumane.”

“Not only is it morally criminal, there are legal implications around fraud, kidnapping, deprivation of liberty, and human trafficking,” he said. 

In a post of his own, Cyr said that an investigation by the DOJ was “absolutely warranted,” and that none of the migrants were or are now in violation of federal immigration law. 

The migrants were transported off of Martha’s Vineyard and brought to Joint Base Cape Cod in recent days. The base has dormitory-style rooms for them, and The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) is working to ensure they have access to food, shelter and essential services. Gov. Charlie Baker also announced that he would activate up to 125 members of the Massachusetts National Guard to help.

Both Cyr and Fernandes toured the base Monday, NBC Boston reported, and spoke with some of the people being housed there. They reportedly used words like “tricked” and “kidnapping” when describing how they ended up in Massachusetts. One person thought they were going to Washington, D.C., and others were told they would be flown to Boston. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom also called on the DOJ to investigate whether or not charges such as kidnapping were warranted. 

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“What infuriates me the most about this case is that here we have 48 people that are already on hard times… and I believe that they were preyed upon,” Salazar said. “Somebody came from out of state, preyed upon these people, lured them with promises of a better life… to just be exploited 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.”

Anyone with information regarding this case is encouraged to contact [email protected], or call (210) 335-6070.

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