DeSantis touts plan to 'profile' and divert migrants from Florida. Critics claim deception

Zac Anderson and Sergio Bustos

TALLAHASSEE — The controversial move to fly migrants to Martha's Vineyard last week appears to be just the beginning of a plan by Gov. Ron DeSantis to "profile" those who might eventually wind up in Florida and divert them elsewhere.

DeSantis recently elaborated with more details on his immigration strategy, pushing back against a chorus of critics who say the Florida governor's plan involves lies and deception. 

The governor said Florida hired a contractor in south Texas to seek out migrants who might be headed to Florida. The Legislature appropriated $12 million in the current state budget to relocate migrants out of the state.

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Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the press during his "Secure Our Border, Secure Our States" press conference Wednesday, June 16, 2021, at the Escambia County Sheriff's Office in Pensacola. DeSantis recently elaborated on his plans to keep migrants from reaching Florida. His move to fly 50 Venezuelans to Martha's Vineyard was widely publicized.

"There's also going to be buses, and there will likely be more flights," DeSantis said during a press conference in Daytona Beach late Friday. "But I'll tell you this, the Legislature gave me $12 million. We're going to spend every penny of that to make sure that we're protecting the people of the state of Florida."

There are questions about whether DeSantis is using the $12 million properly, since the migrants he targeted never made it to Florida and it's not clear the state was their eventual destination.

DeSantis contends that it's more effective to intercept migrants at the Texas border than to track them down when they arrive in Florida as individuals or in small groups.

“If they get in a car with two other people, there's no way we're going to be able to detect that,” he said, adding: “Our view is you’ve got to deal with it at the source and, if they're intending to come to Florida, and many of them are intending to come to Florida, [this is] our best way to make sure that they end up in a sanctuary jurisdiction.”

Among the criticisms levied at DeSantis is that the contractor he hired used deceptive tactics. And that the 50 migrants — most of them from Venezuela — flown to Martha's Vineyard were misled. The governor dismissed the allegations as untrue.

The contractor gave migrants a release form to sign, along with a packet that included a map of Martha's Vineyard, said DeSantis, adding that it was “all voluntary.”

“It's obvious that's where they were going," he said.

But Julio Henriquez, an attorney who met with several migrants, told The Associated Press that the Venezuelans “had no idea of where they were going or where they were.”

In San Antonio, he said, a Latina woman approached migrants at a city-run shelter and put them up at a nearby La Quinta Inn, where she visited daily with food and gift cards. 

He said she promised jobs and three months of housing in Washington, New York, Philadelphia or Boston.

Oren Sellstrom, litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights, which has been giving the Venezuelans free legal advice, said migrants — most of whom requested asylum in the U.S. — told their attorneys that a woman, who introduced herself to migrants as "Perla," promised jobs, housing and support for their immigration cases.

He told NPR that most of the Venezuelans were fleeing very perilous conditions in their home country and had traveled, many by foot, to seek refuge in the United States.

"They arrived here, were processed through federal immigration and then were approached by individuals who were purporting to offer help, saying they could fly them to Boston, to the East Coast, would help them with work opportunities, with education for their children," he said. "It turns out it was all just a political stunt."

One Venezuelan, Pedro Luis Torrelaba, 36, said he was promised work, food and housing. He thought he was going to New York.

“I am not a victim,” he said Friday, expressing gratitude to residents of Martha’s Vineyard for their hospitality. “I simply feel misled because they told a lie and it has come to nothing.”

Rachel Self, an immigration attorney, told reporters in Massachusetts that the Venezuelan migrants brought to Martha’s Vineyard were “lied to again and again and fraudulently induced to board the planes” to the New England state.

Citing interviews she and other attorneys had with the Venezuelan migrants, she said they were falsely told that there would be jobs and housing awaiting them in Martha’s Vineyard.

“Not only did those responsible know that there was no housing and no employment awaiting the migrants," Self said. "They also very intentionally chose not to call ahead to any single office authority on Martha's Vineyard so that even the most basic human needs arrangements could be made, ensuring that no help awaited the migrants at all.”

Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Washington-based civil rights group, said the migrants were given red folders with fake documents promising jobs and housing.

"It was all just a terrible lie," Garcia said, adding that he plans to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The allegations that migrants were deceived has prompted Texas law enforcement authorities to open an investigation. 

Late Monday night, Bexar County, Texas Sheriff Javier Salazar told reporters his investigators are looking into how 48 Venezuelan migrants were “lured” last week to board flights from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha‘s Vineyard under a plan orchestrated by DeSantis for “nothing more … than a photo op.”

“As we understand it, 48 migrants were lured — I will use the word lured — under false pretenses into staying at a hotel for a couple of days,” said Salazar.

“They were taken to Martha's Vineyard from what from what we can gather for nothing more, for little more than a photo op, video op, and then they were unceremoniously stranded in Martha's Vineyard,” said Salazar.

In direct response to Salazar's announcement of an investigation, DeSantis spokesperson Taryn Fenske said "immigrants have been more than willing to leave Bexar County after being abandoned, homeless, and ‘left to fend for themselves,’”

“Florida gave them an opportunity to seek greener pastures in a sanctuary jurisdiction that offered greater resources for them, as we expected," Fenske added.

The Biden administration is pushing back against DeSantis' criticism of the president's border policies, saying a new aggressive campaign against human smugglers had netted thousands of arrests and that border patrol agents had “removed or expelled” more people than any previous year.

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott carried out “an illegal stunt" by ignoring federal immigration laws.

“There is a process of taking in migrants.  There is a process that is in place.  And what they are doing is an illegal stunt … a political stunt,” she told White House reporters on Friday.

When asked if the administration was doing enough to slow the record number of border crossers, Jean-Pierre said the administration is “fixing a broken system” and that “it is going to take time.”

Jean-Pierre said 3,000 arrests have been made to combat multibillion-dollar human smuggling industry and that more immigration judges have been added to move asylum cases faster through the courts.

“There is a process in place to manage migration flows,” she said. “What these Republican governors are doing is political — they’re using desperate people — people who are trying to come here because they’re fleeing communism themselves — as a political pawn."

“It’s shameful.”

DeSantis said his plan took shape last year when he took a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border to help Abbott deal with the border crisis.

DeSantis and his staff learned that 40% of migrants apprehended at the border and interviewed had expressed a desire to move to Florida. He later sought the Legislature's approval to use $12 million to transport migrants.

Take a look:Massachusetts seeks human trafficking probe targeting Florida Gov. DeSantis over migrants

Previous coverage:Migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard arrived from Florida, sent by Gov. Ron DeSantis

Florida Democratic legislative leaders push back against DeSantis

Florida House Democratic leaders said Monday that they are seeking to stop DeSantis from tapping the $12 million the state budget for efforts similar to what he did in transporting migrants from Texas to Martha's VIneyard in Massachusetts.

Rep. Evan Jenne of Dania Beach and Rep. Fentrice Driskell of Tampa said the move violated Florida law, which restricts the use of those dollars to removing "unauthorized aliens" from Florida.

Jenne said DeSantis' move was "about politics, plain and simple."

Democrats are asking the Republican-controlled Legislative Budget Commission to prohibit the governor from using the state funds in that manner again. DeSantis said Friday that he planned to continue with the relocation efforts and planned to move more migrants from the border.

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Driskell said DeSantis' move also went outside the bounds of the law by targeting mostly Venezuelan migrants who were seeking legal asylum in the U.S. They were not unauthorized aliens, meaning he could not use the dollars.

"We have $12 million in funds that are effectively being abused and not used in accordance with how the Legislature set forth," Driskell said. "It's my hope this would not be a partisan issue."

Contributing: USA Today, The Associated Press, News Service of Florida and USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau reporter John Kennedy. He can be reached at jkennedy2@gannett.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport

Follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson. He can be reached at zac.anderson@heraldtribune.com

Sergio Sergio Bustos is the Enterprise/Politics Editor for Florida's Gannett/USA Today Network. He's based in South Florida. Email: floridapolitics@gannett.com. Twitter: @sbustosFL