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Martha’s Vineyard flights leave migrant advocates scrambling

Amid confusion, advocates vow to better protect, inform migrants of their rights

Migrants sit outdoors at the City of San Antonio Migrant Resource Center in San Antonio on Friday. (Jordan Vonderhaar/Reuters)

SAN ANTONIO — After an arduous journey to reach the United States from Venezuela, migrant Israel Garcia thought he’d found safe haven when federal immigration officials said he could stay in the United States while his case was pending.

But as he stood outside a migrant shelter in Texas this week, he struggled to navigate where to go and what to do next. Agents had told him he couldn’t work, but a man approached him offering a free flight to Washington, plus housing and a job.

Garcia, 27, a carpenter, was suspicious.

“To me, it was a false promise,” he said.

Migrant leaders say efforts by GOP governors from Florida and Texas to bus and fly out new arrivals to places like Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and D.C., have created an added level of confusion for migrants and stirred fears that they are being coerced with misleading offers to go elsewhere.

The city of San Antonio — where Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis chartered flights to transport 50 migrants out of state this week — said Saturday that it is advising migrants “not to accept rides or any other assistance from strangers” outside the Migrant Resource Center. Some of those who took the DeSantis flights say they were approached by a woman named Perla near the shelter. The city said signs have been posted providing a national human trafficking hotline number.

The shelter can house 700 people and has served more than 24,000 migrants since it opened in July, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Administration through December. But Catholic Charities is taking over operation from the city on Monday, after the group’s chief executive Antonio Fernandez expressed concerns about migrants being recruited at the site under false pretenses.

Fernandez said he plans to install security cameras and has instructed staff to be on the lookout for recruiters lingering outside.

“I am concerned. Who has been recruiting them? I don’t truly know,” he said. “It shows how the system is: They can take them anywhere by lying to them.”

The organization has hired 145 staff, plans to do away with the center’s three-day stay limit and offer more services. They will also rename it the “Centro de Bienvenida,” or welcoming center, and will offer food, clothing and case management. Fernandez said the shelter will not host buses provided by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Other migrant advocate groups are also jumping in to step up vigilance.

The League of United Latin American Citizens posted “Wanted” fliers at San Antonio shelters with a $5,000 reward for “information leading to a positive identification, arrest and conviction” of Perla, the woman migrants said approached them outside the city shelter.

The group’s national president, Domingo Garcia, said nine Venezuelan migrants in Martha’s Vineyard on Friday told him they spoke with Perla before boarding the flights.

“She promised them that they would get three months of work paid. Under immigration law, they are here under parole. They have a court date. It is illegal for them to work. So she is enticing them to work which is a federal offense. She is enticing them to break the law,” Garcia said.

Garcia said all of the migrants crossed the Rio Grande and were detained near the border city of Eagle Pass, Tex., before traveling to San Antonio. His group is sending volunteers to Eagle Pass this week to advise migrants of their rights, he said. They also plan to erect billboards for migrants along I-35 outside Eagle Pass and San Antonio, he said, “Warning stranger danger with people offering jobs and free transportation who are not legit refugee services.”

Other advocates have raised concerns about how the migrants in places like Cape Cod, Mass., will navigate their cases from afar. Rachel Self, a Boston lawyer aiding the migrants, said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released the migrants with forms falsely stating that they would reside at homeless shelters from Washington state to Florida, and then told them to check in at nearby immigration offices once they arrived.

She said the DHS forms, and Florida’s decision to fly them to Martha’s Vineyard, left migrants “terrified” of missing mandatory appointments and being ordered deported without a hearing.

In an interview Saturday, Self said immigration lawyers had managed to get extensions for the migrants to check in with immigration officials, and were trying to find lawyers to defend them against being deported. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which represents the government in deportation proceedings, did not respond to requests for comment Saturday.

Homeland Security officials pushed back on any notion of wrongdoing, saying Saturday they have nothing to do with the states’ transportation efforts and did not know which migrants had been taken to Martha’s Vineyard or what their forms said. Officials said migrants must declare a U.S. address before they are released and check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) until their cases are resolved.

Democratic officials responded to Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas transporting migrants to Northern U.S. cities on Sept. 18. (Video: The Washington Post)

Any information on the forms is based on what migrants have told the authorities, officials said.

Officials said they are also giving migrants electronic devices with instructions to use them to update their new addresses quickly to avoid missing appointments. DHS conducts background checks on migrants before releasing them to local shelters, nonprofits, or city services for help finding housing or transportation.

DHS officials criticized the Republican governors for failing to coordinate the arrival of buses and planes with state and local governments.

“DHS officials work around-the-clock to enforce our laws, process migrants appropriately, and care for those in custody. Unlike these governors, they are not in the business of using vulnerable men, women, and children as props for a political stunt,” said DHS spokesman Luis Miranda.

Self said lawyers have also called for a criminal investigation into the Florida flights and anticipate filing legal action in federal court “to prevent this from happening again.” She said advocates are also warning migrants in Texas and other border states to exercise caution when accepting rides, and avoid scenarios that sound “too good to be true.”

“They’re preying on a vulnerable population,” she said of the people who recruited the migrants to the Vineyard. “There were a lot of misrepresentations made here.”

Republicans have defended the action, saying border cities were experiencing influxes in even greater numbers. Federal border agents have made nearly 2 million apprehensions on the southern border this fiscal year, exceeding last year’s total.

Migrant bus transports from Texas to Washington continued Saturday: About 50 migrants, including a one-month-old baby, arrived to the residence of Vice President Harris. The bus sent by Abbott dropped the migrants, mostly Venezuelans, outside the Naval Observatory on Saturday morning. The Texas governor also sent three buses of migrants to New York City on Saturday.

Migrant advocates on the border were scrambling to ensure migrants were better informed about their rights and travel options, but said there were limits to what they could do.

Tiffany Burrow, operations director for the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition in Del Rio, Tex., said she had “major concerns” about the Martha’s Vineyard flights, calling them, “deceptive.”

“There’s nothing transparent with how that operation took place,” Burrow said.

She said her group is, “incorporating awareness of these kinds of possibilities within our orientation.” But she doesn’t discourage migrants from taking the free buses provided by Abbott.

“Ultimately the migrants decide if it is a good fit for their needs,” she said, noting the day shelter in the tiny border city, “can only do so much. Migrants are with us for such a short amount of time. Often less than half an hour … wherever the final destination is makes the most sense to gather that kind of in-depth assistance.”

The Rev. Gavin Rogers said volunteers from Travis Park Church’s Corazón Ministries try to help migrants they meet at the downtown bus station, but, “political operatives are finding people to recruit migrants to travel.”

“It’s really a form of human trafficking,” he said. “We try to tell people to follow what’s on their asylum paperwork, get to the city they need to get to,” to check in with federal immigration officials. “Ironically, migrants need transportation. The governors of Texas and Florida are so close to helping — if they just looked at the piece of paper that says where they need to be.”

Venezuelan migrant Mike Betancourt Vivas was outside the city shelter Saturday, trying find a ride to Washington state. He had crossed the border in Eagle Pass, but never saw the state buses. If he had the option, he said, he would take one.

“We need a way to get to our destination directly. People here shut the door and don’t give us opportunities, just like other countries, like Panama and Costa Rica,” he said.

Betancourt, 26, a construction worker and composer with a wife and two daughters stuck in Colombia, said he doesn’t care about being a political pawn if it gets him a free ride to Washington.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “I just want to go.”

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