By Jean Lantz Reisz
The unexpected arrival of approximately 50 Colombian and Venezuelan migrants on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, on Sept. 14, 2022, has prompted legal questions about how and why, exactly, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis chartered planes to drop them in this unlikely destination.
The move is part of a broader campaign by Republican politicians to transport large numbers of migrants to liberal states and cities.
Since then, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has activated 125 National Guard members to help distribute food and other necessities to the migrants, now living at a Cape Cod military base.
And a Texas county sheriff announced Sept. 20 that he was launching an investigation into allegations that a Venezuelan migrant was paid to recruit the other migrants for the trip. Lawyers for 30 of the migrants have been asking for a legal investigation into what they call a “political stunt.”
Many of the migrants said they were falsely promised housing, jobs and expedited work permits if they boarded planes in Texas set for Massachusetts – a likely preferred alternative to the San Antonio shelter where they were temporarily staying.
As an immigration law professor, I think it is important to understand that the answer to whether it is legal to move migrants potentially against their will and transport them across states is complicated and depends on several unknown factors.
The intent behind the drop-off
First, there is an open question of whether the migrants were illegally staying in the United States at the time they were transported to Martha’s Vineyard.
There is a federal law, called 8 U.S.C. § 1324, that criminalizes transporting an undocumented migrant anywhere within the U.S. if the migrant has entered the U.S. unlawfully or remains in the country without a visa or other documentation. This law also prohibits someone from even helping or planning to transport undocumented migrants.
But someone who is found guilty of this law must have also known – and disregarded the fact – that the migrants were in the U.S. without legal paperwork or other permission from immigration officials.
Transporting consenting migrants who have the paperwork to be in the U.S. is legal. But certain factors – like DeSantis’ intent and knowledge of the migrants’ immigration status – could create potential civil and criminal liability.
The migrants might legally be in the U.S.
One key issue, then, is whether the migrants are legally authorized to be in the U.S. – and if not, whether DeSantis, his team and the charter airplane company helped the migrants illegally stay in the U.S. by flying them to Martha’s Vineyard.
Some of the migrants are reportedly asylum seekers and not “illegal immigrants,” as DeSantis’ office has said.
Generally, a migrant who is seeking asylum in the U.S. is not violating immigration law. That is because immigration asylum law authorizes migrants to enter the U.S. and apply for asylum – meaning that they ask for the legal right to stay in the U.S. because they have legitimate fears of returning to their own countries.
Asylum seekers are allowed to temporarily stay in the U.S. while they await an immigration judge’s decision on their asylum application. Migrants might also get temporary permission to stay in the U.S. for other humanitarian reasons.
It is unknown how many of the migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard were authorized to remain in the country or have pending asylum applications.
Moving migrants within the US
Another major question is whether transporting migrants could somehow help or promote their potentially undocumented immigration status.
In 1999, for example, a U.S. federal court of appeals determined that an individual transporting two undocumented migrants from New Mexico to Colorado in search of employment violated immigration law, since the move advanced the undocumented migrants’ unlawful presence in the U.S.
Perhaps there is evidence that DeSantis, or members of his team, helped or advanced the migrants’ unlawful entry or continued illegal presence in the U.S. by transporting them to a sanctuary location within Massachusetts.
Ultimately, DeSantis’ decision to fly migrants to Massachusetts likely frustrated the Biden administration’s immigration law enforcement. Randomly moving migrants across states makes it harder for the government to process asylum applications and to deport migrants who are not eligible for asylum.
The known unknowns
Other factors could determine whether DeSantis potentially violated human trafficking laws, as some immigrant advocates have said.
This includes what the migrants were told – and by whom. Deceiving people and then moving them from one place to another could constitute kidnapping. Falsely promising available work permits is also illegal.
Human trafficking, according to U.S. law, must include exploitation resulting in some kind of material gain. While there is nothing to indicate that DeSantis received compensation for flying the migrants to Massachusetts, the private airplane charter company did receive money to transport them.
The identities and knowledge of the government officials involved in the entire Martha’s Vineyard scheme have not been publicly released.
A formal investigation into the migrants’ individual circumstances – and an examination of those involved with the flight to Martha’s Vineyard – could determine whether this incident resulted in legal violations of civil or criminal laws.
Jean Lantz Reisz is Supervising Attorney at the USC Immigration Clinic and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Law, University of Southern California.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
DeSantis went to Harvard Law School and he sure didn’t learn the laws about illegal trafficking of immigrants. Guess he didn’t pay attention in class or cheated his way through.
David S. says
Both he doesn’t know right from wrong..
DeSantis has been trying to out-Trump the former president in order to increase his political popularity with the MAGA cult, and is showing all of us that he is a wicked, uncaring, anti-Christian political hack that doesn’t have any problem at all using human beings, to include young children and mothers, as pawns in his political game. The difference between the orange, twice impeached loser and him, however, is that while the orange guy is just an idiot who doesn’t know anything about the law, DeSantis graduated from law school and was a military lawyer, and definitely knows better than to do what he orchestrated. So he had a sham release of liability for the migrants to sign. Hmmm, I wonder how many of the non-English speaking migrants even understood what they were signing after being misled to believe they had jobs and housing waiting for them in Martha’s Vineyard, an island of wealthy homes where nobody in their right minds would gravitate to looking for affordable housing and jobs! I hope DeSantis is held criminally responsible for trafficking these migrants across state lines. His conservative so-called “Christian” base should be appalled and denounce him for what he has so cavalierly done, and if they are not appalled, then THEY are showing to the world their true colors which fly in the face of the teachings of Jesus and what is preached in churches all across America. Christianity is fast becoming a cult due to the likes of Trump, DeSantis and other religious hacks just like them.
The flyer these con men used to lure these people had a picture of what the authors thought was the Massachusetts State flag. Just like their con of these people the image was not of the Massachusetts flag.
Alphonse Abonte says
The Democratic led city of El Paso,TX has been sending its own buses of migrants to N.Y.C. and just approved up to a 2 million dollar, 16 month contract to bus even more migrants out of town. They are also requesting federal reimbursement.
El Paso , however, is not being criticized.
They forget thats it’s happening in other states . lets just blame Desantis for everything …Naaa Blame O’Biden !!! Ship them to his place
Maga Mike says
I’m so sick and tired of socialist demoRats……… 45 days to go until the mid-term election.
CLOSE THE DAMN BORDER…. PUT MILITARY WITH TANKS LINED ALL THRU TEXAS AND ARIZONA
Capture the 4 million illegal invaders who are now destroying our country and sent them BACK across the border.
Trump / DeSantis 2024
Maga Mike: Would you please be specific how the “illegal invaders” are “destroying our country” which is a country made up of immigrants? I’m not a Democrat, but I see you have a complete distaste for anything socialistic. I do have a remedy for you, you can divert all your Social Security and Medicare to your favorite charity. Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting for an answer to the supposed destruction of our country. Thanks.
Most, if not all of America’s farmers and agricultural producers depend on migrant labor or they would soon be out of business. You are not going to find ANY caucasians wanting to sign up to toil out in the fields harvesting crops for market. Then there are the many manufacturing plants that hire migrant workers, not to mention the very rich who use them for nannies and household workers. When these employers hire undocumented migrants and there is a raid, guess who DOESN’T get arrested and charged? Those who employ the undocumented illegals. The system will NEVER change unless we turn the enforcement around and start prosecuting the wealthy, conservative owners and wealthy who knowingly arrange for illegal migrants to come here and work for them. When do you think laws will be put on the books with teeth to do this… like, never? So yeah, keep yelling and complaining, rant about putting tanks on the border, but do absolutely NOTHING about the problem of the rich, wealthy, well connected Republican conservatives who continue to hire illegal workers because it saves them money they can stash away while they rant about the Democrat mayors and governors in blue states with “sky high crime problems” the repubs really don’t want to come down because it is a great talking point for them, even while making sure that more migrants come into this country so the rich conservative company owners can pay these migrant workers much less than they would pay American citizens, all so line their own pockets with the cash savings. Capitalism at its finest, huh?
Careful, Liberals! says
They’re gonna want to be Reaaaaaaal careful how they go after Desantis, when Biden set precedence and did same in middle of night. Snowflakes living in glass houses should never throw stones.
Careful: I have never seen a bigger snowflake than Donald Trump! To think a white, rich male cries as much as he does is mind blowing. Waaaa waaaa waaaa. Witch hunt, witch hunt, witch hunt. Unfair, unfair, unfair. I was tougher than him when I was a little girl.
The ORIGINAL land of no turn signals says
No more illegal than Hunter Biden antics.
No turn signal: What about, what about, what about?
The Geode says
Maybe everybody would have been happy if he sent the plane back to their country and dropped them off there…
Flamingo Gary says
Desantis was totally in the wrong dropping them off in Marthas Vineyard. He should have dropped them off in Roswell, New Mexico. Tourism based on the saucer crash is a huge money maker for that town. Imagine if they could advertise that the aliens have returned.
Michael Cocchiola says
Hey, Gary… nice case of xenophobia you’ve got going there. Try to remember that we are all “aliens” in America. Except, of course, for Native Peoples from whom we stole the land and then brutally buried them in it.
We have for a couple of centuries screamed about, abused, and murdered various ethnic groups of immigrants. They have all added greatly to our communities and our nation just like seekers of life and freedom from Venezuela will do.
One more thing. Why are you not complaining when DeSantis allows Cuban refugees who land on our shores and are allowed to stay without drama or a whimper from extremist Republicans?
Flamingo Gary says
Because the people of Cuba are legally allowed to be here if they can make it to our shores or didnt you know that? Native Americans were the first anti-immigrants…..let that sink in. Ive never killed any indians so I have no guilt complex for whatever you are going for there. With an Italian last name I imagine you find it hard to live with yourself for the atrocities Caligula and Mussolini committed seeing as you live in the distant past.
E Martinez says
So if we stole the land as you put it, why are you dealing in stolen goods you thief. You are knowingly possessing stolen goods….. why are you still here Mikey?????
Timothy Patrick Welch says
The “Native People” are also immigrants.
It is uncanny how similar the language DeSantis uses about refugees is to that of the American isolationists and Nazi sympathizers like Senators Borah and McCarran and Col. Lindbergh. I suspect few are following Ken Burns’ PBS series “ The U.S. and the Holocaust “ but, if they did, their vitriol might be abated somewhat.
Timothy Patrick Welch says
Why do so many people support illegal immigration?
If its illegal you should not be doing it, or encouraging others to do it either.
You just can’t decide which laws really don’t need to be followed.
If you support open borders, than work to change the law.
Obey the law unless you are a “Constitutional Sheriff” and can choose which laws to enforce.
don miller says
shame on the blue staters for not coming and getting them themselves. doing their fair share i think they they call it.