(NewsNation) — Attorneys representing some of the migrants who were flown to Martha’s Vineyard on the direction of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are asking federal officials to open a criminal investigation into the situation.
NewsNation affiliate WFLA in Tampa, Florida reports that Boston-based firm Lawyers for Civil Rights represents 30 of the 48 migrants flown to the Massechussettes vacation spot.
In a letter to U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, the firm requested a criminal investigation into the “political stunt,” according to a post on the firm’s website.
“Individuals, working in concert with State officials, including the Florida Governor, made numerous false promises to LCR’s clients — including of work opportunities, schooling for their children, and immigration assistance — in order to induce them to travel,” the attorneys wrote.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office and Attorney General’s Office did not publicly respond to the law firm’s letters on Saturday.
About the flights to Martha’s Vineyard, DeSantis said in a news conference Friday “These are just the beginning efforts. We’ve got an infrastructure in place now. There’s going to be a lot more that’s happening,” according to CNN.
The Republican governor from Florida added he plans to use “every penny” of the $12 million in state funds set aside to relocate migrants.
More Migrants Arrive At VP’s DC Residence
More migrants bused from the southern border arrived at Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence Saturday from Texas.
“We just received one bus coming from Texas, about 50 migrants, a lot of children,” SAMU first response managing director Tatiana Laborde told Reuters. “There’s a one-month-old baby at the bus. They were dropped off at the Naval Observatory.”
The majority of the migrants came from Venezuela and are now being moved to a safe location to get food, clean clothes, and space to rest after their long journey, Laborde said.
“We’ll start working with them and start making arrangements for their future travel,” she said. “We expect the majority of them to move, especially to New York City, and just a small percentage to stay within the District.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott started sending buses of migrants to the U.S. Naval Observatory, Harris’ official residence, on Thursday.
The governors of Texas and Arizona have sent thousands of migrants on buses to New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., in recent months. But the latest moves — which included two flights to Martha’s Vineyard Wednesday paid for by Florida — reached a new level of political theater that critics derided as inhumane.
But proponents say the moves share the burden of housing a record number of migrants entering the country with some of America’s biggest cities that advertise themselves as sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants. Towns along the southern border, such as El Paso, Texas, are overwhelmed.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the flights to Martha’s Vineyard were part of an effort to “transport illegal immigrants to sanctuary destinations.” The Republican’s office didn’t answer questions about where migrants boarded planes and what they were told about the trip.
These high-profile transports have angered the mayors of Washington, D.C., Chicago and New York as immigration rights groups and Democrats deal with providing resources for migrants caught in the middle of this political battle.
Are migrants being forced onto buses and planes?
For some, the trip on the bus is their choice, as NewsNation’s Southwest Correspondent Ali Bradley found when she and NewsNation’s partner Border Report chronicled the journey of one bus headed from the southern border to the nation’s capital.
Buses are free and are voluntary for migrants wanting to relocate to another sanctuary city. In Texas, Abbott said his program is voluntary.
Each migrant wears a wristband with a barcode, which when scanned shows their release paperwork from U.S. Border Patrol and also their consent form.
Migrants are able to get off the bus at any stop. None of them are required to stay on the bus. They’re free to get off anytime, anywhere.
NewsNation is told while most migrants do make it all the way to their vehicle’s final destination, some will typically get off the buses beforehand if it better suits their travel plans.
However, Manuel Castro, New York City’s immigrant affairs commissioner, expressed “concern that (migrants) are being forced or intimidated to stay on the bus to arrive here in New York City,” the New York Post reported.
Murad Awawdeh, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, criticized Abbott for “busing people under misleading information to places that they do not want to go,” the New Yorker reported.
Is transporting migrants from the border something new?
Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey first started busing migrants earlier this year to Washington, D.C., and New York, expanding their efforts to Chicago this summer.
It came to a head this week when a group was dropped off at the vice president’s residence and Martha’s Vineyard.
While governors started busing migrants this spring, transporting them is not a new circumstance. The federal government has processes set up to transport migrants, specifically those seeking asylum as well as unaccompanied children.
The government routinely charters migrants, some to detention facilities if they have a criminal record, others to shelters, including unaccompanied children.
In May, NewsNation reported on the government’s plan to fly migrants from El Paso, Texas, to cities across the country, and found planes headed for Alexandria, Louisiana, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
“This is not new. This is a part of everyday procedures. There is nothing mysterious or nefarious. In order for children to move from border towns to shelter care facilities, they are going to have to travel. They are going to have to fly or go on buses,” Essey Workie with the Human Services Initiative told NewsNation in May.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement provides assistance to asylum seekers who qualify, working also with the State Department to “ensure refugees are placed in locations where there are appropriate services and resettlement conditions,” according to the website.
Why are migrants coming to the U.S.?
Migrants coming from South America are often fleeing political or economic conditions, according to World Vision, a Christian group combating poverty around the world.
Those migrants come to the U.S. seeking asylum. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, asylum is a protection for those who are considered refugees, are already in the U.S. or are seeking admission into the U.S.
Those seeking asylum are looking for protection in fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group.
Migrants can apply for asylum no matter their immigration status and are allowed to remain in the U.S.
Still, critics argue the migrants cross the border without permission before making their asylum claim.
Under federal law, asylum seekers are supposed to be within the United States or at a port of entry to apply for asylum.
A Texas lawmaker would like to change that law, creating “Safe Zones” where they can apply, according to NewsNation’s partner Border Report. He believes it would curb the record number of migrants trying to come into the country at the southern border.
“Unfortunately, U.S. embassies and consulates cannot process requests for this form of protection. That’s because, under U.S. law, asylum-seekers can apply only if they are physically present in the United States (or at least at a U.S. border or other point of entry.) Our bill does create that ability. Additionally, our bill will create the facilities and spaces intended to take in, shelter, and efficiently process individuals seeking asylum — in a space that we can assure will be safe,” U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, told Border Report Thursday.
Where are the migrants coming from?
While the migrants are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, the makeup of those trying to come into the country is not limited to Mexicans.
In a news release, Abbott said the 100 migrants dropped off in front of the vice president’s residence were from Colombia, Cuba, Guyana, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela.
In Chicago, busloads of migrants were dropped off at Union Station, originally coming from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
In 2019 U.S. Customs and Border Patrol reported an increase in contacts with migrants from Central America’s “Northern Triangle” (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador).
Additionally, legal immigration and border security expert David Bier tweeted that southwest border apprehension data shows the number of migrants not from Mexico or the Northern Triangle stopped at the border has skyrocketed starting last year, in addition to increases in those from Mexico and the Northern Triangle.
What happens when they get off the bus?
Migrants have been transported to three main cities, Washington D.C., New York City and Chicago, but they are free to get off the bus whenever it stops. One city, in particular, is Chattanooga, Tennessee, which received 51 migrants in a 48-hour period, on buses headed toward New York City, according to the New York Post.
The task of helping these people has fallen on community groups and volunteers as well as local elected officials, who sometimes are tied up in their own political bouts over the issue.
New York City designated thousands of hotel rooms to house the migrants who were dropped off at Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. In Washington, they were connected with nonprofits and aid groups at Union Station, where they got off the bus.
In Chicago, the city along with community groups provides access to shelter and water. But a suburban mayor criticized Chicago city officials when migrants were housed in hotels outside Chicago city limits.
How bad is the immigration crisis right now?
Separate from the headline-making transportation of migrants to sanctuary cities farther north, U.S. Border Patrol has been overwhelmed, particularly in the El Paso, Texas, area, where a surge of Venezuelan arrivals has filled the shelters to capacity.
One shelter is at three times its normal population, and nonprofits are struggling to find both beds and volunteers, according to Border Report. “Encounters” between migrants and Border Patrol swelled to 1,400 a day.
“The reason we are in the current situation now is because the demographics have changed,” U.S. Border Patrol Acting Supervisory Agent Carlos A. Rivera told Border Report. “The great majority of migrants we are encountering now are not amenable to Title 42 expulsions and must be placed on a Title 8 pathway, which obviously requires more processing, reaching out to (community) partners to determine further custody. Provisional releases are the last option that we have.”
This week, NewsNation affiliate KTSM worked side-by-side with authorities in El Paso, Texas, reporting it spoke with one migrant from Venezuela who spoke to the news crew shortly after he surrendered to agents.
“There’s a lot of need in my country and the majority of us Venezuelans have to cross the jungle we have been traveling for a month and a week,” said German Antonio Garcia.
Migrants were moved to other sectors, both by plane and bus, to be processed to help with the bottleneck.
“We have helped other sectors before in a time when other sectors are in need and now when the El Paso Sector is experiencing an influx, now it is time for other sectors to help us,” said Carlos Rivera, a spokesman for Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector.
Reuters contributed to this story.