Blog post by Rossina Ruano, a graduate student at American University in Washington, DC.

The United States is facing a migrant and refugee crisis. The US government attempts to navigate this issue and find practical solutions to aid these individuals. Keeping control of the influx of migrants entering the country through the US/Mexico border has been demanding. However, the political divide in the country and strong opinions have resulted in certain governors attempting to take the situation into their own hands. In September 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis transported around 50 migrants located in San Antonio, Texas to Martha’s Vineyard (an island south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts). DeSantis is now facing a criminal investigation and an investigation from the Federal Treasury Department regarding the misuse of coronavirus relief funds to transport the migrants. In this blog post I lay out the legal issues and the human rights violations involved in this context.

Understanding the status of migrants and refugees in the US can be confusing. Homeland security has defined a refugee to be a person outside his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. Refugees apply for asylum before they enter the US. This is what makes refugee status different from an asylum seeker. Asylum seekers are already on US soil when they submit an application and the admission process and agency is different than that of refugees. In the case of the migrants who first claimed in San Antonio, they are asylees.  Once a refugee has made it onto US soil, they are an asylee. After one year the asylees are required to file for Lawful Permanent Resident, better known as a “‘green card”’. However, when a migrant is a victim of a crime, they now qualify for a special visa they had previously been ineligible for, the U-visa.  In order to apply for the U-Visa there needs to be a U Nonimmigrant Status Certification. In a backfiring of Governor DeSantis’ plan, the San Antonio Sherriff’s Department has filed for such certificates on behalf of the group of migrants he had relocated. This certificate is key for the migrants to apply for the U-visa and they are now eligible due to the criminal investigation the San Antonio police are conducting.

Consequently, the migrants have received support from the people of Martha’s Vineyard and legal counsel. As the San Antonio Sheriff’s Department executes their investigation, the migrants have filed a class action lawsuit with immigration attorney Rachel Self, representing them. Attorney Self has filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the migrants on the grounds that they were transported to Martha’s Vineyard under false pretenses, presented to the migrants by Governor DeSantis and someone he worked with named Perla Huerta. She has been identified by the migrants and the San Antonio Sherriff’s office as having solicited and recruited, with the aid of another Venezuelan migrant, the individuals that were placed on the flight to Martha’s Vineyard. Perla allegedly approached the migrants with the promise of jobs and housing in Massachusetts. Additional evidence for the case of the migrants, in addition to them recounting their experience to lawyers and journalist, are folders that held fake brochures and maps. Each of the migrants on the flight received a folder. The folders included a map from Texas to Massachusetts, a map of Martha’s Vineyard, and the brochure which stated the promised aid the migrants would receive upon arrival. The migrants were lied to and promised jobs, housing, aid, and help with the immigration process. Instead, they were left traumatized and their dreams crushed.

The issue of human trafficking relates to how these migrants were transported to a location that they were unfamiliar with. They arrived, were stranded at the airport and were forced to walk until they found someone that could help them. These migrants lack access to resources and are facing unfamiliar surroundings. Refugees and asylum seekers are targeted by traffickers and smugglers because they can be easily exploited. When they arrived at Martha’s Vineyard the migrants expected to find jobs, but they could not legally work yet. Without any resources or jobs, the migrants could have been preyed upon and forced into labor or sex work. Human trafficking is an issue around the world, and it must be taken seriously. There is enough evidence that refugees and migrants fall victim to human trafficking and smuggling. This is proven by the many protocols the United Nations has published and the work they do to prevent this from happening. More specifically, the UN General Assembly published the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air, Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. The actions of Governor DeSantis are therefore not only problematic, but he could be found guilty of breaking various laws.

Not only has Governor DeSantis potentially misused funds, but he has also highlighted how easily migrants and refugees can be victims of various crimes such as human trafficking. The refugee crisis in the US and the immigration process for these individuals needs reform. However, the only way positive and successful reforms will take place is when all political parties are able to collaborate and build solutions. Migrants and refugees are already experiencing severe trauma and are escaping from a variety of dangerous situations. The additional suffering at the hands of Governor DeSantis is unwarranted. The rights of migrants and refugees must be protected.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.