A Texas sheriff said Monday evening his agency will open an investigation into the transportation of 48 Venezuelan migrants from the state to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, last week.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, a Democrat, told reporters at a Monday news conference that his understanding was that on Wednesday a Venezuelan migrant was paid a fee to recruit 50 migrants from a resource center in San Antonio, the county seat of Bexar County.
The sheriff of the south Texas county, located about 160 miles north of the US-Mexico border, said he believes laws were broken not only in the county but also on the federal side.
A total of 48 migrants were “lured” to a hotel where they were housed for two days, according to Salazar. The migrants were flown to Florida and then to Martha’s Vineyard under “false pretenses,” he said.
The sheriff said they were flown to Martha’s Vineyard for “a photo-op and stranded.” He believes the migrants were “exploited and hoodwinked” into making the trip for political posturing. The sheriff has been speaking with an attorney who represents some of the migrants for first-hand accounts of what took place, Salazar told reporters.
The allegations that he has heard thus far are “disgusting and a violation of human rights,” he said. Salazar said he believes there needs to be accountability for what happened.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has claimed credit for flying the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard as part of his criticism of the Biden Administration’s immigration policies. In an interview with Fox News on Monday night, DeSantis said the migrants were not misled.
“They all signed consent forms to go and then the vendor that is doing this for Florida provided them with a packet that had a map of Martha’s Vineyard, it has the number for different services that are on Martha’s Vineyard,” DeSantis said.
“Why wouldn’t they want to go, given where they were? They were in really, really bad shape and they got to be cleaned up, everything, treated well,” he added.
When asked earlier about the investigation, DeSantis spokesperson Taryn Fenske gave CNN the following statement: “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. Unless the MA national guard has abandoned these individuals, they have been provided accommodations, sustenance, clothing and more options to succeed following their unfair enticement into the United States, unlike the 53 immigrants who died in a truck found abandoned in Bexar County this June.”
Migrants’ attorneys praise investigation
Lawyers representing many of the migrants praised the sheriff’s office for announcing the investigation, saying that their clients were “victimized in an orchestrated scheme.”
“We are gratified to hear that the Bexar County Sheriff has opened up a criminal investigation into this matter, and we encourage other law enforcement authorities to do the same,” Oren Sellstrom, the ligation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights, told CNN.
“Our clients were victimized in an orchestrated scheme that unfolded across multiple jurisdictions and involved numerous different perpetrators,” he said. “Our clients stand ready to assist law enforcement in any way possible to bring the perpetrators of this despicable scheme to justice.”
On Monday, the migrants’ attorneys said that brochures given to their clients were “highly misleading” and “used to entice (their) clients to travel under the guise that (resettlement) support was available to them.”
The brochure lists refugee services, including cash and housing assistance, clothing, transportation to job interviews, job training and assistance registering children for school, among other resources.
However, migrants are, in many cases, asylum seekers, not refugees. Refugees apply for protection overseas and are admitted through the refugee admissions program, whereas asylum seekers apply within the US.
One Venezuelan migrant, who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity for fear of negative impacts on their immigration case, shared images of the brochure. They said migrants were told that the brochure had information on the assistance they would receive in Massachusetts, but they were not told about the differences in programs for refugees and asylum seekers.
Florida paid aviation company over $1.5 million under migrant relocation program, records show
Florida’s Department of Transportation has paid $1.565 million to Vertol Systems, an aviation company based in Destin, Florida, as part of the state program to relocate migrants, according to state budget records.
A payment of $615,000 was made on September 8 and a $950,000 payment was requested by the state on September 16, budget records show.
The budget records do not detail what kind of “contracted services” Vertol provided the department, nor is it clear whether the two payments were for two flights to Martha’s Vineyard that were flown and operated by Ultimate Jet Charters, a separate private jet company based in Ohio.
DeSantis signed a budget earlier this year that allocated $12 million “for implementing a program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state consistent with federal law.”
DeSantis said last week that he intends to spend “every penny” of that money. “These are just the beginning efforts,” he said. “We’ve got an infrastructure in place now. There’s going to be a lot more that’s happening.”
The website for Vertol Systems was removed in the days after it was revealed they were providing “contracted services” for the Florida program.
CNN was able to access the company’s website on September 16, but cached copies of the website indicate it was removed sometime between September 16 and September 18.
CNN has previously reached out to Ultimate Jet Charters, Vertol Systems and the Florida Department of Transportation about the flights, but has not received a response.
Sheriff would welcome federal help
Salazar told reporters he will be working with federal agencies and welcomes White House assistance.
“Absolutely parts of this case are going to have to go federal, and there’s going to have to be some coordination that goes along with that,” he said. “So absolutely, I would welcome the White House or anybody else from the federal side to give us a call and help us out with whatever they can,” he said.
President Joe Biden met Friday with members of his administration to talk about immigration issues.
A White House official said the meeting had been planned before Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent two busloads of migrants to Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence in Washington on Thursday and DeSantis sent two planes carrying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.
Biden has accused the Republicans of “playing politics with human beings” and “using them as props” in response to those stunts.
CNN’s Carolyn Sung, Jamiel Lynch, Steve Almasy, Maria Santana, Polo Sandoval, Priscilla Alvarez, Zenebou Sylla and Kristina Sgueglia contributed to this report.