A Texas county sheriff is opening a criminal investigation into flights that carried dozens of migrants to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, from Texas last week, an act that Florida's Republican governor took credit for and which the White House dubbed a political stunt.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said at a news conference on Monday that around 50 migrants were "lured under false pretenses" on the streets of San Antonio, put up in a hotel, bused to planes and "stranded unceremoniously in Martha's Vineyard," a wealthy vacation island, "for nothing other than a photo-op."
San Antonio is the biggest city in Bexar County.
"What infuriates me most about this case is that we have 48 people who are already on hard times," Salazar said. "I believe they were preyed upon."
WATCH | Sheriff announces investigation into migrant luring claims:
Salazar, a Democrat, said his move was not related to his party affiliation.
"It's wrong from a human rights perspective. What was done to these folks is wrong," he said.
The sheriff did not promise that criminal charges would result from the process, but he said "the allegations we've heard [are] absolutely distasteful."
A spokesperson for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said immigrants have been "more than willing to leave Bexar County after being abandoned."
"Florida gave them an opportunity to seek greener pastures in a sanctuary jurisdiction that offered greater resources for them, as we expected," DeSantis's communications director, Taryn Fenske, said in an emailed statement.
Used as 'political pawns': White House
Salazar said his office was working with advocacy organizations and private attorneys representing the victims and could co-ordinate with federal authorities as needed.
DeSantis, who is up for re-election in November and seen as a possible presidential contender in 2024, claimed credit for the two flights from San Antonio, while criticizing Democratic President Joe Biden's handling of a record number of crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border.
DeSantis joins Republican governors from Texas and Arizona in sending migrants to Democratic-controlled cities, who have sent migrants to cities such as New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
DeSantis said last week that Florida paid to fly the migrants to Martha's Vineyard because many migrants who arrive in Florida come from Texas.
The Biden administration said the Republicans are using migrants as "political pawns."
While details of how the flights were arranged and paid for remain unclear, one migrant told Reuters he and his family were recruited outside of a migrant resource centre in San Antonio and promised housing, support for 90 days, help with work permits and English lessons. He said they were surprised when their flight landed on an island best known as a summer retreat populated mostly by affluent, liberal Americans.
U.S. border agents made nearly two million migrant arrests through August at the U.S.-Mexico border this fiscal year, which began last October, according to government data released Monday.
They include a growing number of Cubans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and others who cannot be expelled to Mexico under a public health order in place since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, known as Title 42. Republicans have generally been in favour of keeping the ordinance in effect, but many Democrats and advocates for refugees have said it encourages repeated crossing attempts instead of funnelling them into the refugee system to have their claims heard.
An attempt by the Biden administration to end Title 42 in May was blocked by the courts, at least temporarily, after legal action was launched by 24 largely Republican-governed states who were opposed to that plan.
The pandemic's early months led to delays in court hearings, exacerbating conditions in an already overwhelmed U.S. system for hearing asylum claims. The backlog in immigration courts mushroomed to more than 1.9 million cases, for an average processing time of over four years per case, according to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
About 6.8 million Venezuelans have left their homeland since an economic crisis took hold in earnest in 2014 for the country of 28 million people. Most have gone to nearby nations in Latin America and the Caribbean, including more than 2.4 million who are in neighbouring Colombia.