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When Does Relocating Migrants Cross a Legal Line in the US?

The governors of Texas, Florida and Arizona have escalated a showdown with the administration of President Joe Biden over its immigration policies along the southern US border by sending thousands of undocumented people north and dropping them off without advance notice in so-called sanctuary states. Critics say the Republican governors have gone too far to score political points, particularly after Florida’s Ron DeSantis took credit for flying about 50 Venezuelans to the island of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. That episode has spurred a criminal investigation and a class-action lawsuit that will determine whether laws were broken and migrants’ rights were violated.

1. Who are these migrants?

They are people who entered the US without permission, applied for asylum and were released pending a hearing. In the meantime, they are free to travel within the US and to apply for a work permit after 150 days. 

2. What’s the criminal investigation? 

Javier Salazar, the sheriff of Texas’s Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, said he had opened a probe into who had “lured and transported” migrants from Texas to Florida and then to Martha’s Vineyard, best known as a summer resort for wealthy vacationers. He said his office was investigating whether the migrants had been hoodwinked into boarding flights, but he didn’t specify any possible charges or who the suspects might be. Some Democrats have suggested DeSantis could be prosecuted for trafficking -- the transportation of people through force, fraud or deception. But under federal and state laws, trafficking is typically associated with forced labor or participation in commercial sex acts. 

3. What’s the lawsuit? 

In the suit filed in Massachusetts federal court, DeSantis and Florida’s transportation secretary are accused of duping the migrants into boarding flights with false promises of employment and housing at their destination. No arrangements had been made for the migrants upon their arrival on Martha’s Vineyard. Once they boarded the flights, they weren’t free to leave, according to the complaint, which includes claims of violations of constitutional and civil rights, as well as “intentional infliction of emotional distress” over the use of the migrants as political “pawns.” 

4. What are the legal issues posed by the relocations?

Consent is critical, whether immigrants are loaded onto planes or buses and wherever they are sent. In the rudimentary release forms that DeSantis’s team said were used for the Martha’s Vineyard flights, the migrants agreed to be transported to “locations in sanctuary states.” While there’s no official legal definition of a sanctuary destination, the label generally applies to states, counties or cities that declare they won’t assist in immigration enforcement and deportation. If it’s true the migrants accepted transportation offers voluntarily and intended to go to sanctuary destinations under the belief that anywhere is better than Texas, lawsuits face steeper odds. But it will be harder for the southern officials to defend their actions in court if evidence comes to light that the migrants were coerced or tricked into being transported far from where they applied for asylum and where they must return to complete the process. If the migrants can prove that they were promised places to live and work on Martha’s Vineyard, they might be able to argue that they were defrauded. 

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