When a private plane chartered by the Florida government recently dropped off bewildered Latino migrants on two flights from Texas to California, Governor Gavin Newsom described it as a possible “kidnapping” and called for an investigation.
There was precedent: A Texas sheriff this week announced he was recommending criminal prosecution in connection with two similar robberies last year, also organized by the state of Florida, which transported 49 Venezuelan migrants from Texas. to Martha’s Vineyard and left it to stunned local officials to figure out what to do with it.
But holding anyone civilly or criminally liable for the thefts can be difficult, legal analysts have said, and would most likely hinge on whether the migrants were misled when they boarded the planes.
“I suspect going after this is going to be overkill,” said Jon Taylor, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who is familiar with local criminal laws. “It can be difficult to get a conviction.”
State officials said the migrants who arrived in Sacramento on Friday and Monday had documents indicating their flights were “administered by the Florida Division of Emergency Management” and its Florida-based contractor, Vertol Systems.
Mr. Newsom, a Democrat, was clearly blaming his Republican Florida counterpart, Governor Ron DeSantis, who has long complained that Democratic border policies have left Florida to deal with an immigration increase that has taxed schools and other public infrastructure. in his condition.
“You pathetic little man”, Mr. Newsom wrote on Twitter, addressing Mr. DeSantis. “It’s not Martha’s Vineyard. Kidnapping charges?”
Florida officials confirmed on Tuesday that the flights were made as part of the state’s $12 million migrant relocation program, but insisted they were “voluntary” and that organizers had obtained verbal and written permission from migrants who they said clearly wanted to go to California.
Civil or criminal liability would be incurred if it appeared that consent was not fully informed, several legal analysts said, as appears to be the case with some of those who were airlifted to Massachusetts in 2022. Some of these men and women said that they had been falsely informed that jobs awaited them and that they had not understood the waivers they had signed.
But there would be defenses: Employees hired to recruit migrants in Texas to board the flights could say they were told they were just picking up volunteers who wanted a trip to another state, Ms. Taylor.
And even if it were established that the migrants were misled by people on the ground, he said, Mr. DeSantis or people around him could claim that they had not ordered their employees or contractors to mislead or coerce anyone.
“It’s the idea of clean hands. They are not directly responsible,” Mr. Taylor said. “That’s plausible deniability.”
Texas investigators examining the Martha’s Vineyard robberies initially considered a wide range of possible crimes, but after careful investigation, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office recommended prosecution for unlawful restraint, a misdemeanor in most cases and a crime when it involves children.
The people who recruited the migrants could face up to two years in prison because several minors were part of the group that was taken to Massachusetts, investigators said.
“That makes this case rather rare, mainly because it’s an overstatement to call it human trafficking,” Mr Taylor said.
Much of the attention in the Texas case has focused on a former Army counterintelligence officer, Perla Huerta, who met several migrants outside a San Antonio shelter, gave them McDonald’s gift cards and a brochure whose cover read, “Massachusetts Welcomes You. The migrants, most of whom were fleeing extreme poverty and despair in their home countries, signed waivers accepting the flights and boarded two planes operated by Vertol Systems bound for Martha’s Vineyard, an oasis of left for the rich.
Lawyers representing Ms. Huerta in related civil lawsuits did not respond to a request for comment. In legal documents, they said the migrants only complained about their trips because they disagreed with Mr DeSantis’ policy. They were receptive to the free trips, the documents show, because they were hungry, exhausted and had few other options for help when they were approached.
The San Antonio sheriff did not recommend more serious charges, such as kidnapping, and did not expand his network to include prominent political figures in Florida, such as Mr. DeSantis. Legal analysts said it was likely because local law enforcement officials felt their role was limited. From the start, Sheriff Javier Salazar stressed that he was watching people who may have broken the law in his own jurisdiction.
There was no outcry from Texas Governor Greg Abbott of the kind heard from Mr. Newsom in California: Mr. Abbott undertook his own migrant relocation program, sending large numbers migrants on buses to Democratic-run cities including New York, Washington and Chicago.
The issue in California might be a jurisdictional issue, since the robberies didn’t originate there, but the state could assert its authority given that at least some of the crime took place there – again, if it can be proven that the migrants were taken there against their will, said Gerardo Menchaca, a San Antonio immigration attorney who has frequently handled criminal cases.
Being lured somewhere with false pretenses can be “akin to kidnapping”, Mr Menchaca said. And because the migrants were taken from state to state, state governments and the federal government would have the right to investigate, he said. “It doesn’t have to be where the crime started, as long as it ended there,” he added.
California Democratic Attorney General Rob Bonta said investigators are looking into whether any laws were broken.
But a full investigation takes time, as evidenced by the slow progress in San Antonio, where it took the sheriff’s department nearly nine months to deliver its findings to District Attorney Joe Gonzales.
For starters, Sheriff Salazar certified that everyone airlifted to Martha’s Vineyard was a victim of a crime, a finding that allows them to apply for a special immigration visa they wouldn’t otherwise be eligible for.
Now the district attorney must review the results of the investigation and decide whether to take the case to a grand jury, a process that could take weeks or more.
“The process of determining whether there is enough evidence to charge anyone with a crime and to convince a jury of Bexar County citizens ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ that a crime has been committed can be long and laborious at the best of times,” M. said,” Gonzales said in a statement.
Nicolas Nehamas contributed reporting from Miami.