BOSTON — Lawyers representing a group of migrants who were relocated to Massachusetts last week are calling for a criminal investigation of what they called a “political stunt” that may have violated federal immigration laws.
In a letter to U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Rachel Rollins and state Attorney General Maura Healey, the Boston chapter of Lawyers for Civil Rights said the migrants were “induced to board airplanes and cross state lines under false pretenses” such as the promise of work, schooling for their children and immigration assistance.
“The perpetrators targeted our clients based on race, national origin in order to make the political point they wanted,” wrote Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, the group’s executive director. “They preyed on the vulnerability of our clients ... and exploited this vulnerability to win trust through false promises.”
“This type of conspiracy to deprive our clients of their liberty and civil rights and interfere with federal immigration proceedings must be thoroughly investigated for violations of criminal laws,” he wrote.
The request comes in response to the unexpected relocation of about 50 Venezuelan migrants who were flown to Martha’s Vineyard from Texas last Wednesday by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who claimed the move was in response to the Biden administration’s immigration policies.
Gov. Charlie Baker said Friday that the state has relocated the migrants to Joint Base Cape Cod, where they were given shelter, food and other essential services.
A spokesperson for Rollins’ office declined to comment on the group’s request, and the AG’s office said it is reviewing “relevant” information about the relocations.
“We are in touch with our federal and state partners, along with attorneys representing the migrants, as we gather facts and evaluate all legal options,” Healey spokeswoman Chloe Gotsis said in a statement.
DeSantis, a Republican who is eyeing a potential run for president in 2024, has defended his decision to send the migrants to Massachusetts and other states, and has vowed to send more undocumented individuals to “sanctuary” jurisdictions.
The move followed similar actions by other Republican governors, including Greg Abbott of Texas, who’ve been sending large groups of undocumented immigrants to Democratic strongholds in Washington, D.C., New York City and Chicago. Some migrants have even been dropped off outside Vice President Kamala Harris’ home.
“States like Massachusetts, New York and California will better facilitate the care of these individuals who they have invited into our country by incentivizing illegal immigration,” DeSantis said in a statement.
Nationally, the issue has rekindled a thorny debate over immigration policy ahead of the midterm elections, when control of Congress will be up for grabs.
In Massachusetts, the issue has seeped into the gubernatorial race, with Republican candidate Geoff Diehl pointing the blame at Healey and other Democrats for supporting “sanctuary” policies he claims are encouraging illegal immigration. Healey is the Democratic nominee in the race for governor.
In a statement, Diehl cited a recently approved state law authorizing drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants and other Democratic-backed policies that make the state “a natural destination” for illegal migration.
“Instead of making it easier for illegal immigrants to come here, we need policies that will make it better for legal immigrants to choose Massachusetts as a destination to pursue a better life for themselves and their families,” he said.
A Healey spokeswoman declined to comment on Diehl’s claims, pointing to the AG office’s ongoing review of the allegations made by the lawyer’s group.
On Monday, a Texas sheriff said he has initiated an investigation into the relocation of the migrants, who were reportedly flown from Texas to Florida before their final destination in Martha's Vineyard.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, a Democrat, told reporters at a Monday news conference that he believes the migrants were "hoodwinked" into making the journey for political posturing.
Not a ‘sanctuary’
To be sure, Massachusetts isn’t a “sanctuary” state and only a handful of communities have approved such policies, which vary widely. Most are aimed at preventing local police departments from acting as immigration agents or enforcing federal immigration laws, which are both civil and criminal in nature.
Under Salem’s “Sanctuary for Peace” ordinance, upheld by voters in 2017, authorities are allowed to cooperate with immigration officials on criminal matters but do not question people’s immigration status during routine interactions.
Lawrence’s policy, approved by its City Council in 2015, directs police not to cooperate with ICE agents seeking illegal immigrants unless they have criminal warrants.
Advocates have tried for years to win approval for legislation that would establish Massachusetts as a sanctuary state, but the measure hasn’t passed.
Nationally, more than 200 local and state governments have adopted policies limiting cooperation with federal immigration agents.
Former Republican President Donald Trump vowed to crack down on sanctuary communities and signed an executive order in 2017 to withhold grants from communities refusing to cooperate. His crackdown was blunted by court rulings that police cannot hold people at the behest of immigration agents.
It’s not clear if any communities in Massachusetts that have sanctuary policies on their books will be targeted by DeSantis or other GOP governors.
A spokesperson for Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, a Democrat who is running for Lt. Governor with Healey, said there are discussions underway at city hall and with community groups “to respond quickly and compassionately” with temporary shelter, food assistance, interpreters and other services if a large group of migrants arrives in the city.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.