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Migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard sue DeSantis in class action alleging fraud

The lawsuit accuses Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials of violating constitutional protections and several federal statutes.

Migrants who were flown from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, under a new program by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sued DeSantis, a Republican, and other state officials Tuesday, alleging they were victims of fraud for political purposes.

Alianza Americas, a Chicago-based network of migrant-led organizations, and three migrants who landed in Massachusetts last week on flights chartered by Florida accused DeSantis and his co-defendants of executing “a premeditated, fraudulent, and illegal scheme ... for the sole purpose of advancing their own personal, financial and political interests.”

In the lawsuit, which seeks class-action status in Massachusetts federal court, the plaintiffs allege that the “ruse” — which DeSantis claimed credit for as part of his effort to highlight illegal immigration — violated constitutional protections under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and several federal statutes.

In addition to seeking damages, they are also asking the court to block DeSantis and others named in the lawsuit from “inducing immigrants to travel across state lines by fraud and misrepresentation.”

The suit further argues that the money DeSantis used was unauthorized because it “originated from the federal Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund and was therefore subject to its use restrictions.”

Image: DeSantis migrant flights to Martha's Vineyard
Immigrants gather with their belongings outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard, on Sept. 14.Ray Ewing / Vineyard Gazette via AP

The lawsuit alleges that the scheme involved DeSantis and other Florida officials worked with unidentified defendants to identify and target migrants by "trolling streets" outside a migrant shelter in San Antonio and other locales and that they lured roughly 50 migrants with McDonald's gift certificates and free hotel stays, with the promise that if they boarded planes to other states they would get jobs, housing, educational opportunities and other assistance upon arrival.

Defendants spent $615,000 chartering the planes and told the migrants they were flying to Boston or Washington, D.C., but they were instead dropped at Martha's Vineyard without food, water or shelter, according to the lawsuit.

"Defendants manipulated them, stripped them of their dignity, deprived them of their liberty, bodily autonomy, due process, and equal protection under law, and impermissibly interfered with the Federal Government’s exclusive control over immigration in furtherance of an unlawful goal and a personal political agenda," wrote Oren Sellstrom, the litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based nonprofit legal aid group involved in the lawsuit that is representing migrants who were flown to the Massachusetts island last week.

Taryn Fenske, a spokesperson for DeSantis, said in a statement that the migrants chose to board the flights.

"The transportation of the immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard was done on a voluntary basis," Fenske said. "The immigrants were homeless, hungry, and abandoned — and these activists didn’t care about them then. Florida’s program gave them a fresh start in a sanctuary state, and these individuals opted to take advantage of chartered flights to Massachusetts."

Lawyers for Civil Rights had asked state and federal authorities this week to investigate the flights. The group also posted images of what it said were misleading brochures distributed to migrants to entice them to board the planes.

According to Tuesday's lawsuit, the brochures were among a packet of “official-looking materials” to support the ruse.

DeSantis has insisted that no laws were broken, and he has pledged to continue his administration’s $12 million program to relocate migrants.