Domestic Deporting: Desantis’ Shipment of Migrants to Martha’s Vineyard

By: Lara Kimmel

October 5, 2022

This September, Florida Governor Ron Desantis claimed responsibility for transporting approximately 50 Venezuelan migrants—including seven families, with children ranging from 3 to 8 years old—to Martha’s Vineyard, a popular vacation destination in Massachusetts. In order to carry out his plan, Governor Desantis chartered two planes costing $615,000 total—$12,500 per passenger—dipping into the state’s $12 million Covid-19 relief funding that the Florida state legislature designated for its migrant relocation program earlier this year. However, Governor Desantis involved himself in this situation when the migrants were never in Florida to begin with. Most of the migrants had recently crossed the border into the United States and were living in San Antonio, Texas, where they turned themselves in to border authorities, likely in an attempt to pursue legal asylum. During their stay in San Antonio, the migrants were allegedly lured onto the plane as part of a scheme by DeSantis, Florida officials, and other unidentified defendants to target migrants outside a migrant shelter. The migrants were promised McDonald’s gift certificates, free hotel stays, jobs, housing, educational opportunities, and other assistance upon arrival if they agreed to board the planes. Further, they were told they were being sent to Boston, Massachusetts or Washington, D.C. However, this was clearly not the case, as the plane landed in a completely different destination. Supposedly, the destination was a surprise to the migrants as well as those on Martha’s Vineyard. State Rep. Dylan Fernandes, who represents Martha’s Vineyard, said “they weren’t told where they were going and never alerted local officials and people on the ground here that they were coming. It is an incredibly inhumane and depraved thing to do.”

Now the question remains: was this act by Desantis and other Florida officials to use more than half a million taxpayer dollars to transport migrants from another state using false promises legal? According to Alianza Americas, an organization for Latino immigrants, and Jason Pizzo, a Florida Democratic senator representing Miami, this was not a legal act. Alianza Americas filed a class action lawsuit against Governor Desantis; Jared Purdue, Secretary of Florida Department of Transportation; the State of Florida, the Florida Department of Transportation, and five unidentified defendants who took part in the scheme to lure the migrants onto the planes. Additionally, Senator Pizzo alleged that the governor violated the law by using the state’s budget of $12 million for the purpose of transporting these migrants.

The complaint filed by Alianza Americas on behalf of the migrants alleged twelve causes of action, ranging from constitutional violations, federal statutory violations, and several tortious actions. The facts claim that the defendants made false promises including housing assistance, food, help applying for social security, transportation to job interviews, and more, as shown by the brochure provided to the migrants. 

First, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. Defendants illegally seized the Plaintiffs, as the migrants only found out about their actual destination – Martha’s Vineyard, not Boston or D.C. – while on the plane when they were unable to leave. Further, Defendants abused their power by fraudulently inducing Plaintiffs to board the plane and cross state lines. Thus, Defendants denied Plaintiffs the freedom of movement without just cause. Lastly, Plaintiffs were denied equal protection because they were discriminated against and targeted based on their race and/or national origin. 

         Plaintiffs also allege that Defendants violated several federal statutes, including Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Supremacy Clause, Procedural Due Process, Civil rights Conspiracy, and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021/Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund. Defendants discriminated against Plaintiffs based on race and/or national origin based on a program receiving federal funding – the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund. Further, “[t]he Constitution grants the federal government sole and exclusive power to regulate immigration,” which conflicts with the Defendants’ conduct of transporting the migrants across state borders. Defendants were not given any sort of hearing or proceeding before becoming a part of the Defendants’ scheme and were deprived of procedural due process rights as well as civil rights, and Defendants used the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund created by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 for the unauthorized purpose of transporting the migrants. 

         Lastly, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants participated in many tortious actions, including False Imprisonment, Fraud/Deceit, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, and Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress. Defendants “intentionally conspired to confine” the Plaintiffs in the aircraft transporting them to Martha’s Vineyard, made false representations to induce them to travel without providing such benefits, intentionally inflicted emotional distress by transporting them “ thousands of miles away from Texas, where they need to continue with their federal immigration proceedings,” and negligently caused the Plaintiffs dignitary harms and physical manifestations of harm requiring mental health counseling and support. 

         For these harms, Plaintiffs are requesting the court “enjoin Defendants from inducing immigrants to travel across state lines by fraud and misrepresentation; Award compensatory, emotional distress, and punitive damages to the individual Plaintiffs and the class in an amount to be determined at trial; Award Plaintiffs’ their attorneys’ fees and costs; and order such additional relief as the Court deems just and proper.

Governor Desantis, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, and Department of Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue are facing another lawsuit, filed by Jason Pizzo, a Florida Democratic senator representing Miami. As the migrants claim in their lawsuit, Pizzo alleges Desantis violated state law because the budget stipulates that the funds may be used for “the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state consistent with federal law” (emphasis added). However, the flight departed from Texas and stopped in Florida before going to Martha’s Vineyard. Senator Pizzo has requested orders enjoining the payment, contract, and use of state funds to bring “unauthorized alien(s)” into the state of Florida. 

Governor Desantis has publicly stated his intention to continue transporting migrants to sanctuary states using state funding. The lawsuits filed by Alianza Americas and Senator Jason Pizzo – as well as any future lawsuits – are critical steps in preventing the Governor’s plan to defraud many other vulnerable migrants and move them across the country. 

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