Unequal justice: Taking Ron DeSantis to Court

Unequal justice: Taking Ron DeSantis to Court
Image via Gage Skidmore.
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To challenge the GOP’s latest cruel stunt, advocates hope to make their civil-rights a case class action suit.

If you thought the GOP’s war on immigrants couldn’t get any more twisted or depraved, think again. A new level of depravity was reached on September 14, when approximately fifty Venezuelan migrants were lured by false promises of employment, housing, and educational opportunities to board two private chartered jets that flew them from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Unbeknownst to the migrants, they had been transplanted as part of a premeditated plan hatched by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The flights were paid for by Florida taxpayers from a $12 million appropriation approved by the state legislature earlier this year to implement the governor’s policy of relocating “unauthorized aliens” to so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions.

Instead of being welcomed with open arms and job applications in Martha’s Vineyard, the migrants found themselves abandoned and alone on the tarmac of the resort island’s tiny airport. Fortunately, they were taken in by local church groups later that day and were subsequently provided with temporary housing on a nearby U.S. military base.

Eager to bolster his anti-immigration image and his presidential aspirations, DeSantis has proudly taken responsibility for the stunt and has been basking ever since in the resulting publicity. In a press conference on September 15, he blasted the Biden Administration’s border security policies, declaring, “Every community in America should be sharing in the burdens [of increased immigration]. It shouldn’t all fall on a handful of red states.”

Both DeSantis and the migrants will now be going to court. On September 20, the Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights, a non-profit public-interest law firm network formed amid the civil rights era in 1968, filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit to enjoin the governor’s policy and have it declared unconstitutional.

Totaling thirty-five pages, the federal complaint lists three individual Venezuelan migrants as plaintiffs, along with the activist organization Alianza Americas, which provides counseling and outreach services to immigrants. In addition to DeSantis, the complaint names Florida transportation secretary Jared Perdue as a defendant, along with five accomplices who have not yet been identified.

The lawyers are also seeking to have the case certified as a class action brought on behalf of “all immigrants who have been, or will in the future be, induced by Defendants to travel across state lines by fraud and misrepresentation.”

The complaint sets forth twelve separate legal causes of action, including violations of the migrants’ rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. In addition, it asserts that DeSantis’ relocation policy runs afoul of Article I of the Constitution, which vests the federal government with the power to regulate immigration, and conflicts with the Supremacy Clause (Article VI, cl.2), which makes the Constitution and federal statutes the “supreme law of the land.”

The underlying facts of the case read like something culled from the script of a bad Hollywood caper—and it begins before the migrants even reached Florida. In early September, according to the complaint, the defendants sent at least two accomplices to “troll” the streets outside a migrant center in San Antonio, “pretending to be good Samaritans offering humanitarian assistance.” One of the accomplices called herself “Perla” and the other introduced himself as “Emanuel.”

To gain the plaintiff’s trust, Perla and Emanuel gave them $10 McDonald’s gift certificates and “made false promises and false representations” that if the migrants were willing to board airplanes to other states, “they would receive employment, housing, educational opportunities, and other like assistance upon their arrival.”

The migrants had recently been released by federal immigration authorities pending further legal proceedings to determine their rights to remain in the United States. Lacking work and suffering from food insecurity, they agreed to the proposal, thinking they were headed for Washington, D.C., Boston, or some other large city where they would find refuge and begin new lives.

The price tag for the flights came to $615,000, or $12,300 per passenger. The Intercept has reported the funds were paid to Vertol Systems Company, Inc., an aviation firm based in Portland, Oregon, with a history of donating to Republican politicians and conservative causes.

Both planes landed briefly in Florida. One then touched down in North Carolina and the other in South Carolina before taking off again. At some point aboard each aircraft, according to the complaint, the migrants were given a “shiny, red folder that included … official-looking materials, including a brochure entitled ‘Massachusetts Refugee Benefits’ and instructions for how to change an address with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.” The complaint alleges “the brochure was manufactured by Defendants,” and “echoed the type of false representation[s]” the migrants had been given orally.

As cruel as it is, DeSantis’s scheme is only a small part of a wider relocation campaign designed to expose what the MAGA right denounces as liberal hypocrisy on immigration. Since April, Texas Governor Gregg Abbott has bused more than 10,000 migrants to New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and other blue-state cities. Arizona Governor Greg Ducey has also gotten in on the act, busing nearly 2,000 migrants out of state.

Cruelty, however, isn’t necessarily illegal. To win their case, Lawyers for Civil Rights must prove that their clients were defrauded and didn’t knowingly consent to be flown to Martha’s Vineyard. DeSantis has insisted the migrants signed consent forms—printed in English and Spanish—before they boarded. Governors Abbott and Ducey also claim their programs are strictly voluntary.

If the attorneys can’t prove their claims in a civil suit, there will be little to no chance that DeSantis, Abbott, or Ducey will face criminal prosecutions, whether for kidnapping, human trafficking, or any other serious offenses, as some prominent Democrats and leftwing legal commentators have suggested. In a criminal case, the burden is on the government to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In most civil cases, the standard of proof is a mere preponderance of evidence.

One thing, however, remains certain: In times of social crisis, immigrants are an easy target for political demagogues. Historically, dating back to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the “red scares” of the early-to-mid-20th century, the “Operation Wetback” mass deportations of the Eisenhower era, the anti-immigrant factory raids of the 1970s, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, and the revolting family-separation policies of the Trump Administration, all of our major political parties have joined in the game.

Above all else, it is that enduring undercurrent of prejudice and scapegoating that must change—and legal challenges like this will help get us there.

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