Sheriff Files Criminal Charges Over Florida’s Transport Of Migrants From San Antonio To Massachusetts

The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office says it has completed its investigation into the transport of 49 migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard last September by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration and filed criminal charges with the local district attorney.

A statement from the sheriff’s office says it has filed several counts of unlawful restraint, both misdemeanors and felonies. The sheriff’s office didn’t name any individual suspects and didn’t specify when the investigation was turned over to the Bexar County district attorney.

“At this time, the case is being reviewed by the DA’s office. Once an update is available, it will be provided to the public,” the statement said.

In a separate statement from the sheriff’s office, spokesperson Johnny Garcia said the case was turned over to the DA’s office “recently,” adding, “At this time we are not naming the suspects involved in the case.”

Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales said in a statement released Tuesday that his office will review the criminal complaint from the sheriff’s office.

“The process of determining whether enough evidence exists to charge anyone with a crime and convince a jury of Bexar County citizens beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has been committed may be lengthy and labor-intensive under the best of circumstances,” Gonzales said. “If a review of the facts reveal that a felony offense has been committed, we will present that case to a grand jury for their deliberation.”

According to a lawsuit filed by a law firm representing some of the migrants, Perla Huerta, a former combat medic and counterintelligence agent in the U.S. Army, gave $10 McDonald’s gift cards to about 50 migrants in San Antonio last year in exchange for a signed consent form to board a flight to Massachusetts. Inside the charter plane, the migrants, many of whom were Venezuelans, were given a brochure with a list of organizations that provide social services the migrants were not eligible for, according to the lawsuit.

The next day at a news conference, DeSantis claimed credit for sending the planes from Texas to Massachusetts. He has said that it was part of the state’s program to relocate migrants to a “sanctuary destination.” The Florida Legislature set aside $12 million for the effort, and DeSantis has spent more than $1.5 million so far on the flights, according to state records.

DeSantis’ office didn’t respond to an email from the Tribune seeking comment.

On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said he was “was pleased to hear that Sheriff Salazar’s office has taken the case seriously. This is not about politics, it’s about people that have broken the law. And they need to be held accountable.”

Meanwhile, California’s attorney general on Monday accused the DeSantis administration of recruiting South American migrants in El Paso to fly them to Sacramento.

According to the Sacramento Bee, 16 migrants from Venezuela and Colombia were flown on Friday from El Paso to Sacramento and then dropped in front of the offices of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento. On Monday, the same plane carried 20 migrants from El Paso to Deming, N.M., then to Sacramento, according to the newspaper and the flight tracking website FlightAware.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement on Saturday that his office has opened an investigation into who flew the migrants to California and why. No one has taken credit for the migrant flights out of El Paso.

“We are also evaluating potential criminal or civil action against those who transported or arranged for the transport of these vulnerable immigrants,” he said. “While this is still under investigation, we can confirm these individuals were in possession of documentation purporting to be from the government of the State of Florida. While we continue to collect evidence, I want to say this very clearly: State-sanctioned kidnapping is not a public policy choice, it is immoral and disgusting.”

On Monday, Bonta’s office said the same contractor flew both groups of migrants to Sacramento, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“Special agents from the California Department of Justice are on the ground and have made contact with these individuals,” the office said in a statement on Monday. “As was the case with the migrants who arrived on Friday, the migrants who arrived today carried documents indicating that their transportation to California involved the state of Florida.”

Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston law firm that’s representing some of the migrants in the Martha’s Vineyard case, said it’s also taking on clients in Sacramento.

“Our office mobilized and we were able to get a few of our attorneys on the ground in California,” said Mirian Albert, an attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights.

In a tweet Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom called DeSantis a “small, pathetic man. This isn’t Martha’s Vineyard.” He included a link to his state’s criminal code on kidnapping.

Noah Alcala Bach contributed to this story.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/06/05/texas-san-antonio-migrant-flight-marthas-vineyard-criminal-charges/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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