Misinformation given to a group of migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., has raised calls for an investigation into whether Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis intentionally misled the asylum-seekers, potentially violating the law.
The group of 50 were not only promised housing and employment — immigration law experts say they were given bad advice that could actually jeopardize their immigration status as they seek to remain in the U.S.
Perhaps the most controversial information provided to the migrants came in the form of brochures with information on how to register as refugees in Massachusetts, despite the fact that they’re asylum-seekers and are not eligible to register for that program.
“Refugees are different than asylum-seekers. Refugees get benefits; asylum-seekers do not. Refugees get approval beforehand; asylum-seekers do not. These people have all been processed — they’re not illegal because they’ve been processed by Customs and Border Protection. There’s so much here that’s just full of lies,” Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) told The Hill.
The state of Florida has also called the migrants “illegal immigrants,” but gave them guidance about how to navigate parts of the legal immigration system. This apparent contradiction has spurred questions about whether DeSantis’s operators deliberately misled the migrants, or whether Florida officials misunderstood basic precepts of immigration law.
DeSantis communications director Taryn Fenske defended the brochures, saying the information was pulled directly from publicly available Massachusetts government websites.
“I will say that the brochure is legitimate and if you google it, it’ll confirm the information was directly from the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants. So, it’s unclear why many in the media are portraying it as being fraudulent or incorrect,” Fenske wrote in an email to The Hill.
DeSantis and fellow GOP Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Ducey of Arizona have continuously defended the migrant transport, arguing that so-called sanctuary jurisdictions are in a better position to attend to migrants than non-sanctuary states.
“Additionally, sanctuary jurisdictions would be best equipped to provide the services they promote and offer, i.e., from their own website — employment, education, etc.,” Fenske wrote.
But Democrats and immigrant advocates say the entire operation is a ploy to create chaos around migration ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
“This is the normal thing that Republicans do every time they start losing campaigns. They scare everybody. And they’re going to use this to scare everybody. I mean, at the end of the day, most of these people, if they have friends and family in Florida, are going to end up in Florida, even if they do take them to Massachusetts. And it was just kind of a waste of time. It doesn’t really create any solutions,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) said.
The flights have ignited a firestorm for DeSantis, particularly once migrants who landed on the far-flung New England island detailed how they thought they were going to Boston and relayed the other promises.
An attorney for the group has now sued DeSantis, and the House Homeland Security Committee has asked both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to investigate.
The letter from the panel cited concerns that the migrants “were coerced to board the flight through false information” and asks the Justice Department “whether any Federal laws were violated in the coercion and transport of the migrants.”
“One of the things that you’re always concerned about is as a country, we should tell people the truth. They shouldn’t be tricked, shouldn’t be taken advantage of. Most of them have had significant challenges getting to this point. And we still have, as a nation of laws, we have to treat people humanely and obviously we have to treat them with what the law provides,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said in response to a question from The Hill.
The entire policy of shipping people north has drawn comparisons to “Reverse Freedom Rides,” an early 1960s anti-civil rights counterprotest designed to portray Black Southerners as a socioeconomic burden.
In a Friday letter led by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), 27 House Democrats called on Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to publicly denounce the migrant dumps, in part because of the similarity to the Reverse Freedom Rides.
“The dishonest relocation programs are acts of gamesmanship rooted in racism and xenophobia. In 1962, southern White Citizen Councils started ‘Reverse Freedom Rides’ to remove Black people from their states based on false promises. 60 years later, Governors Greg Abbott, Doug Ducey, and Ron DeSantis are using the same ploys to remove immigrants,” wrote the lawmakers.
The suit against DeSantis claims his actions constituted false imprisonment, fraud and intentional emotional distress.
“They were lied to again and again and fraudulently induced to board the planes,” said Rachel Self, one of the attorneys now representing the migrants in the case.
She noted that the asylum-seekers were told to register their new address once they landed with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an agency that does not oversee the first steps in the asylum process.
“This is especially troubling, as anyone with even the most basic understanding of the immigration proceedings knows that USCIS was not the agency with whom the migrants would have to record their addresses and has nothing to do with their cases in any way,” Self said.
“It is clear that this was an intentional attempt to ensure that these migrants were removed in absentia when they failed to change their address with the proper agency. This was a purposeful derailment designed to prevent people from complying with federal immigration policies,” she added.
And many Democrats are not buying the explanation proffered by DeSantis’s office that they were simply relaying information provided by Massachusetts.
Barragán said the governor’s office would have the resources on hand to understand the implications of the instructions it was offering the migrants.
“This is intentional lying. This is not misinformed,” she said.
“There’s no way. You’re the governor of a state. OK, you’ve got a team. You can figure it out. This is a political ploy.”
Still, Republicans have come to DeSantis’s defense, minimizing the impact of the migrant dumps and focusing on the Biden administration’s asylum policies, which they decry as “open borders.”
“[The migrants] were misled when they heard that the border is open. I mean, it’s really bad,” said Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.).
“The problem here is that there is the border that is open. That’s very cruel, too,” said Salazar.
Asked whether the state of Florida reaped any benefits from giving migrants misleading information, Salazar replied, “I don’t know about that. But I still look at the big picture.”
And Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) said the relocations would appeal to Floridians.
“Floridians are sick and tired of this administration allowing millions of illegal migrants to unlawfully pour into our country with zero repercussions,” Steube said.