A county sheriff in Texas has opened a criminal investigation into flights that transported dozens of migrants from the US state to Martha’s Vineyard last week, after observers raised questions about the legality of the move.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said at a news conference on Monday evening that 48 migrants were “lured under false pretenses” from the streets of San Antonio, put up in a hotel, and bused to planes taking them to the wealthy vacation island in Massachusetts.
The group, which included children, was “stranded unceremoniously in Martha’s Vineyard … for nothing other than a photo op”, the sheriff said.
“What infuriates me most about this case is that we have 48 people who are already on hard times, they are here legally in our country,” Salazar, a Democrat, told reporters. “I believe they were preyed upon.”
I have officially opened a criminal investigation against the individual(s) who lured and transported 48 migrants from the Migrant Resource Center in San Antonio, TX to Martha’s Vineyard. If you or someone you know has been impacted, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
— SheriffSalazar (@sheriffsalazar) September 20, 2022
Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who is up for re-election in November and seen as a possible presidential contender in 2024, claimed credit for the two flights from San Antonio.
DeSantis, as well as Republican governors from Texas and Arizona, have been sending migrants to Democratic-controlled cities, including two buses of migrants dropped off near the residence of Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, DC last week.
The campaign comes amid Republican criticism of Democratic President Joe Biden’s handling of a record number of crossings along the United States-Mexico border – and as the GOP seeks to use immigration as a rallying point ahead of the November 8 midterms.
Since April, Texas has bused about 8,000 migrants to the US capital, 2,200 to New York City and 300 to Chicago. Arizona bused more than 1,800 to Washington, DC since May, while the city of El Paso, Texas bused more than 1,100 to New York since August 23.
DeSantis said last week that Florida paid to fly the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard because many migrants who arrive in Florida come from Texas.
A spokesperson for DeSantis said immigrants have been “more than willing to leave Bexar County after being abandoned”.
“Florida gave them an opportunity to seek greener pastures in a sanctuary jurisdiction that offered greater resources for them, as we expected,” DeSantis’s communications director, Taryn Fenske, said in an emailed statement to news agencies on Monday.
But migration rights advocates and Democrats have slammed the campaign as inhumane.
The Biden administration said the Republicans are using migrants as “political pawns”.
“These were children, they were moms,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Friday. “And what did Governor DeSantis and Governor [Greg] Abbott [of Texas] do to them? They used them as political pawns, treated them like chattel in a cruel, premeditated political stunt.”
Vanessa Cardenas, deputy director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigrant group, said in a statement on Monday that “in the absence of real solutions, Ron DeSantis and other Republicans seek to distract by cruelly scapegoating immigrants”.
“Yes, there are real concerns about border issues and real needs for solutions instead of gamesmanship,” Cardenas said.
Julio Henriquez, a lawyer who met with several migrants in Massachusetts, told the Associated Press news agency that they “had no idea of where they were going or where they were”.
He said a woman who approached the migrants at a city-run shelter in San Antonio put them up at a nearby hotel where she visited daily with food and gift cards. She promised jobs and three months of housing in Washington, DC, New York, Philadelphia and Boston, said Henriquez.
The US has seen a rising number of migrants and asylum seekers streaming to its southern border with Mexico.
According to US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data released on Monday, authorities apprehended migrants 2.1 million times at the US’s southern border between October last year and the end of August.
The new statistics include an increased number of Cubans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and others who cannot be expelled to Mexico under Title 42, a public health order in place since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many seek to pursue asylum claims.
Salazar, the Texas sheriff investigating the Martha’s Vineyard flights, said his office was working with advocacy organisations and lawyers representing the migrants and would coordinate with federal authorities as needed.
“It’s wrong from a human rights perspective. What was done to these folks was wrong,” he said.