DeSantis Sued By Florida Watchdog Group—Here’s All The Legal Fallout He Faces For Flying Migrants To Martha’s Vineyard

Topline

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and his office were sued by the state’s Center for Government Accountability (FLCGA) on Monday, over allegations it illegally withheld public records related to the state flying approximately 50 Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts—the latest legal exposure DeSantis has faced since he took credit for the migrants’ flights.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a rally on August 19 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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Key Facts

FLCGA’s lawsuit asks the state court to compel DeSantis’s office to turn over a range of documents related to the Martha’s Vineyard flights—including phone logs and any communications with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), as the migrants’ flights originated in that state—alleging it has not fulfilled the group’s records requests or responded to them in “good faith,” as state law requires.

Florida state Sen. Jason Pizzo (D), acting as a private citizen, sued DeSantis and other state officials in September, taking issue with the state’s program that uses taxpayer money to “facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state consistent with federal law” through private companies.

That lawsuit argues the state flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard violated that measure because they were not in the country unlawfully and their flight originated in Texas and not Florida—meaning they were not “from this state”—and asks the court to declare the statute unconstitutional altogether, or at least bar the state from transporting any more migrants who aren’t from Florida.

The migrants themselves have also sued DeSantis and others, filing a federal class action lawsuit last week that alleges they were flown to Martha’s Vineyard under false pretenses and the incident inflicted emotional distress, violating federal law.

Sheriff Javier Salazar of Bexar County, Texas, opened a criminal investigation into the flights to Martha’s Vineyard, though he said it was still too early to determine which, if any, laws may have been violated.

Democratic lawmakers and officials—including more than 40 House Democrats, state legislators in Massachusetts and Florida and California Gov. Gavin Newsom—have urged the Justice Department to investigate the flights, largely focused on whether any federal laws were violated because migrants were allegedly “misled” when they were convinced to get on the flight and did not know they would be flying to Martha’s Vineyard.

Big Number

$12 million. That’s how much Florida’s annual budget appropriates to its program to transport undocumented migrants.

Chief Critic

DeSantis and his office have continued to defend flying the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard despite the litigation that’s resulted. The governor’s communications director Taryn Fenske accused Pizzo of “never miss[ing] an opportunity for his 15 minutes of fame” in response to his lawsuit, and said of the migrants’ class action suit that the migrants were “homeless, hungry and abandoned” and accused activists of “us[ing] illegal immigrants for political theater.” His office has not yet responded to a request for comment on FLCGA’s lawsuit.

What To Watch For

The DOJ has not yet given any indication it will investigate the flights, but Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco told Bloomberg on September 16 the agency had received “a number of inquiries and letters” about the incident and would be reviewing them. There also still could be more legal fallout: Other Democratic state lawmakers in Florida have said they’re considering opening an investigation into the flights and whether it violated state law, and immigration advocates told WBUR they were looking into the legal implications of the flights, suggesting additional lawsuits could be filed. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) could also face legal repercussions for transporting migrants from his state to Democratic-led areas, as Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) has said his office is looking into the legality of migrants being sent to Chicago.

What We Don’t Know

Whether or not DeSantis’ actions violated any federal laws. Immigration experts told WBUR and Politico the issue likely hinges on whether the migrants went to Martha’s Vineyard voluntarily or were coerced into going under false pretenses, which could raise the possibility that trafficking or kidnapping laws were violated. “There is absolutely the possibility of both civil and criminal liability if people were lied to about where they were going, what they were going to get when they got there,” immigration attorney Susan Church told Politico. The migrants’ class action lawsuit accuses DeSantis of violating their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by “unreasonably seiz[ing] Plaintiffs without just cause” and violating their due process and equal protection rights, along with fraud, inflicting emotional distress and other alleged violations. One statute that DeSantis likely did not violate, however, is a provision that bars the transport of undocumented migrants, given that the migrants were cleared by federal immigration authorities and were not in the country unlawfully.

Key Background

Approximately 50 migrants were flown on private flights to Martha’s Vineyard under DeSantis’ direction on September 14, sending the migrants to the small island without any warning of their arrival. The class action lawsuit alleges the migrants—many of whom were Venezuelans seeking asylum after fleeing the country’s corrupt government—were approached outside of migrant shelters in Texas and were told they would be flying to either Boston or Washington, D.C., rather than Martha’s Vineyard. They were also allegedly promised “employment, housing, educational opportunities, and other like assistance upon their arrival,” which was false. The migrants’ transport has drawn widespread condemnation from Democrats accusing DeSantis of using the Venezuelans as political pawns as part of his opposition to the Biden administration’s border policies. In addition to DeSantis, Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) have also sent thousands of migrants to Democratic-run areas like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York City, arguing those places would be better to absorb the migrants, but the Martha’s Vineyard flights marked an escalation of the GOP governors’ strategy, given the island’s more limited resources.

Further Reading

Was DeSantis Shipping Migrants to Martha’s Vineyard a Crime? (Just Security)

Dems push DOJ to probe DeSantis over migrants. But there’s no easy legal answer. (Politico)

Advocates question whether Florida gov. broke laws by shipping migrants to Vineyard (WBUR)

DeSantis Tactic Of Sending Migrants To Martha’s Vineyard Likely Didn’t Violate Smuggling Laws, Experts Say (Forbes)

Doubts rise over whether DeSantis had budget authority to fly migrants (Politico)

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