After the shock arrival of 50 Venezuelan men, women, and children on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts on Wednesday, Democrats nationwide have called on the Biden administration to investigate the stunt as potential human trafficking—a comparison that even the White House has embraced.
“This maneuver raises serious legal questions and will have untold repercussions on the individuals caught up in the governor’s political stunt,” said Florida agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried, who accused Gov. Ron DeSantis of “political human trafficking by sending a flight of dozens of asylum seekers to an island five miles from the mainland. “An investigation is necessary.”
“Shipping vulnerable migrants across the country is not a campaign tactic. It is human trafficking,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MI). “It is the abuse of dozens of human beings and a celebration of that abuse for political gain.”
The Biden administration, which has a near-blanket policy of not discussing potential investigations by the Department of Justice, initially punted on the question of whether President Joe Biden views the transport as legal, instead focusing on the use of undocumented immigrants as “pawns” in a political chess match.
But in searing remarks from the White House briefing room, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Friday that the asylum seekers were “lured” onto the planes by “false promises” and likened DeSantis’ tactics to those of human traffickers.
“These were children, they were moms—they were fleeing communism,” Jean-Pierre said, emphasizing that “these vulnerable migrants [were] reportedly misled about where they were headed” and “misled about what they would be provided when they arrived.”
“These are the kinds of tactics we see from smugglers in places like Mexico and Guatemala,” Jean-Pierre said.
But while that particular accusation appears unlikely to meet a legal threshold, experts say, DeSantis and Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) could still be in legal jeopardy. For example, allegations from asylum seekers that they were flown from Texas and Florida under false pretenses and without knowledge of their final destination could amount to a violation of state and federal law—even kidnapping.
“If you take somebody and you move them from Point A to Point B against their will, that’s kidnapping,” said Marc Evans, a 28-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department and a leading authority on human trafficking.
Many of the migrants have told reporters and local authorities that they were promised by a person who identified themselves as “Perla” that they would receive expedited work visas and fast-tracked asylum processing if they boarded flights or buses to northern sanctuary cities. On Martha’s Vineyard, a popular summer colony among wealthy East Coasters and a favorite retreat of President Barack Obama, three migrants told NPR that they had been told they were flying to Boston—more than three hours and a ferry ride away.
Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, an expert on human trafficking, said that unless the migrants had been transported for the purpose of exploitation—such as for illegal labor practices—the letter of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act doesn’t apply.
“You would need to examine whether there was force, fraud, coercion, deception, or threat used for the purpose of exploitation,” Mehlman-Orozco said, noting that even if they were transported under false pretenses, “in order to be considered as a potential incident of trafficking, there would need to be exploitation as well.”
Speaking at a gala for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Thursday evening, Biden echoed Jean-Pierre, accusing Republicans of “playing politics with human beings, using them as props.”
“We have a process in place to manage migrants at the border,” Biden said. “Republican officials should not interfere with that process by waging these political stunts.”
But the administration’s aversion to raising questions about the legality of DeSantis’ migrant transports hasn’t stopped legal authorities, including Massachusetts’ chief federal law enforcement officer, from calling for an investigation.
“We are looking into that case, and we’ll be speaking with members of the Department of Justice. Massachusetts isn’t the only place where this has happened,” Rachael Rollins, Massachusetts U.S. attorney, told reporters on Thursday. “We have several other sister communities, whether it’s D.C., New York, California, where we’ve seen things like this, and we’re hoping to get some input from the Department of Justice about what our next steps might be.”
Other high-profile Democrats—including several with thinly veiled White House ambitions of their own—have straight-up accused the Florida governor of civil rights violations, fraud, and kidnapping.
“I strongly urge the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation into possible criminal or civil violations of federal law based on this alleged fraudulent scheme,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement on Thursday. Newsom—who has a longstanding feud with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, another major proponent of migrant transports to liberal cities—suggested that promises of expedited visas and asylum claim processing “would support charges of kidnapping,” and suggested that DeSantis could be prosecuted under federal racketeering laws.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, another Democrat whose state has been on the receiving end of migrant transports from Texas and Florida, told reporters on Thursday that “legal authorities are looking into whether or not there is criminal liability” for the practice.
DeSantis, meanwhile, has defended the legality of the practice, citing the creation of a $12 million program by the Florida state legislature in March using money earned from interest on COVID-19 pandemic relief funds to pay for private contractors “to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.”
A spokesperson for DeSantis said in a statement that the funding of the program is “consistent with federal law.”