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Migrants who landed on Martha’s Vineyard were tricked by misleading brochure, lawyers say

While the migrants' lawyers say their clients were duped, Florida officials say they provided housing and food to homeless and hungry people who voluntarily went on the trip.
Immigrants gather Wednesday with their belongings outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard.
Immigrants gather Wednesday with their belongings outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard. Ray Ewing / Vineyard Gazette via AP

When roughly 50 migrants were flown from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, under a new program by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to highlight illegal immigration, they were given a brochure about housing, cash assistance and jobs for refugees.

But there’s one problem with what the brochure was promoting: The migrants aren’t anywhere close to being classified as refugees, a specific term under U.S. immigration law. The implicit promises of help, therefore, were misleading and potentially criminal, according to Lawyers for Civil Rights, a nonprofit legal aid group representing 30 of the people who landed on the Massachusetts island last week.

The Boston-based group of attorneys, which posted images of the brochure Monday on its website, has asked state and federal authorities to investigate the flights, and it is considering filing a civil lawsuit against Florida, said its litigation director, Oren Sellstrom.

“This is additional evidence that shows in writing that those false representations were made in order to induce our clients to travel,” Sellstrom told NBC News.

The brochure was first reported by the website Popular Information.

Amid the condemnation from immigrant-rights groups and the White House, DeSantis and his administration have denied that any laws were broken, and he pledged to push ahead with a new $12 million program to relocate “unauthorized aliens” to so-called sanctuary jurisdictions that have said they would welcome migrants and asylum-seekers.

“These are just the beginning efforts,” DeSantis said Friday at a news conference, vowing “to spend every penny” he can on the program.

DeSantis said he chose the tony and exclusive island of Martha’s Vineyard for Wednesday's trip because it calls itself a sanctuary destination. It's also known as a wealthy vacation spot for high-profile liberals.

DeSantis, who's considered a potential 2024 presidential candidate, hasn’t revealed the destinations of any subsequent trips for migrants.

DeSantis modeled his program on one started by a fellow GOP governor, Greg Abbott of Texas, who has sent thousands of migrants from his state to Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C.

Florida is supposed to move migrants “from this state,” according to the state budget for the new program, but the migrants' legal aid group said its clients — nearly all of whom are from Venezuela — were first approached in the San Antonio area by unknown people working for Florida.

“They, the people that were on the ground in Texas, recruiting our clients for this stunt, held themselves out as people that could be trusted. They preyed on our clients’ vulnerability in order to gain their trust,” Sellstrom said.

Late Monday, the Democratic sheriff of the Texas county where the migrants were picked up as part of DeSantis’ new program announced he was opening an investigation.

Migrants from Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua have been flocking to the U.S. in increasingly large numbers, and they’re rarely returned to their home countries once they cross the border because of hostile relations with the U.S. Many seek and are granted asylum in the U.S., and most of the migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard were asylum-seekers or plan to be, according to Lawyers for Civil Rights.

Joseph Lackey, a Miami-based immigration attorney who isn’t representing any of the people who were flown to Massachusetts, said handing out information that's tailored to refugees is confusing to recipients who fall into other categories.

Under immigration law, he said, asylum-seekers have to go through a process before they can are granted asylum and then apply for refugee status to receive benefits, such as those promised in the brochure given to the Martha's Vineyard migrants.

“If they used the word ‘refugee,’ that is absolutely misleading,” Lackey said. “Refugee is a particular status, which none of these people have until after they win their asylum claim. That takes years. ‘Refugee’ is not used in the colloquial sense, like ‘I’m fleeing from my country.’ ‘Refugee’ is a term of law. It has a very specific meaning.”

Lackey said he believed “an argument could be” made that the migrants could qualify for a special type of U visa given to victims of crimes because they are alleged to have been hoodwinked into traveling to Massachusetts by false promises of jobs and housing, which could be a form of human trafficking.

“You know what that means? That means DeSantis’ little gambit could actually come back to haunt him if these people get legal status because of what was done to them, because of what he did to them,” Lackey said.

In a call with reporters Monday, a senior DeSantis administration official repeatedly characterized the flights to Martha's Vineyard as voluntary and a net positive for the migrants, who were described as homeless and hungry.

“At no specific time was anybody given some promise of a specific job,” said the state official, adding that Florida paid to house and feed them in Texas before the flights to Massachusetts.

“Many sanctuary states advertise resources that are available there, resources more likely to be available and offered at these destinations than those available within Florida, since we are not a sanctuary state,” the official said. “These were homeless people that were in a rough situation and undoubtedly had their circumstances improved. In fact, several have already communicated their thanks for the opportunity to go to the sanctuary state.”

DeSantis’ communications secretary, Taryn Fenske, argued the information in the refugee brochure wasn't "fraudulent or incorrect" because it “was directly from the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants.”

A spokesperson for the Massachusetts agency couldn’t be reached for comment.

Sellstrom, of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said not much is known about the officials involved in the Florida relocation scheme. He said an unknown woman, whom some migrants identified as Perla, distributed fast-food vouchers and even offered to buy a man a new pair of shoes because his were worn out during the long trek through Central America and Mexico.

“They gained their trust, then made false representations about what would be available to them, in order to induce them to do this. And then, when they landed on the ground in Martha’s Vineyard, those people were nowhere to be found,” Sellstrom said. “So yes, this brochure is certainly additional evidence of that kind of misrepresentation and fraud, but it’s very consistent with what our clients have told us they were being orally represented, as well.”