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Criminal investigation opened into Gov. DeSantis' migrant flights to Martha's Vineyard

Criminal investigation opened into Gov. DeSantis' migrant flights to Martha's Vineyard
Criminal investigation opened into Gov. DeSantis' migrant flights to Martha's Vineyard 01:07

MIAMI - A criminal investigation is being launched into how a group of migrants was sent from Texas to Massachusetts with Florida taxpayer money on orders from Governor Ron DeSantis.

The Bexar County Sheriff's office confirmed that to CBS4 News.

Sheriff Javier Salazar says these migrants were "Lured, hoodwinked and exploited" for political purposes and that's why he's opening an investigation.

Salazar said investigators had so far only spoken to attorneys representing some of the migrants and did not name any potential suspects who might face charges.

He did not mention DeSantis in a news conference that appeared to mark the first time a law enforcement official has said they would look into the flights.

"I believe there is some criminal activity involved here," Salazar said. "But at present, we are trying to keep an open mind and we are going to investigate to find out what exact laws were broken if that does turn out to be the case."

DeSantis' office responded with a statement that said the migrants had been given more options to succeed in Massachusetts.

"Immigrants have been more than willing to leave Bexar County after being abandoned, homeless, and 'left to fend for themselves," DeSantis spokesperson Taryn Fenske said. "Florida gave them an opportunity to seek greener pastures in a sanctuary jurisdiction that offered greater resources for them, as we expected."

The 48 Venezuelan migrants who were flown to the wealthy Massachusetts island from San Antonio on Wednesday said they were told they were going to Boston. 

Julio Henriquez, an attorney who met with several migrants, said they "had no idea of where they were going or where they were."

Hernandez said a Latina woman approached migrants at a city-run shelter in San Antonio and put them up at a nearby La Quinta Inn, where she visited daily with food and gift cards. She promised jobs and three months of housing in Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Boston.

Some Democrats have urged the Justice Department to investigate the flights, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom and U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, whose district includes San Antonio.

A federal investigation might be complicated, however. It's not clear whether anyone boarded buses or planes unwillingly, or that their civil rights were violated. 

Venezuelan rally planned for Tuesday afternoon in Doral 02:59

The rights of asylum seekers arriving to the U.S. are also more limited because they are not citizens. The constitution, though, does protect them from discrimination based on race or national origin and from improper treatment by the government.

The migrants are now being housed at Joint Base Cape Cod, where they have access to clothing, food and healthcare among other things.

On Tuesday afternoon, Venezuelan groups are holding a rally at the Park in downtown Doral at 5:30 p.m. 

Sheriff Salazar held a news briefing Monday.  

Here is the briefing in its entirety, posted on the sheriff's Facebook page: 

Meanwhile, in Tallahassee, Florida House Democrats want Republican legislative leaders to block funding that DeSantis plans to continue using to transport migrants.

Contending DeSantis has "abused" spending authority in the state budget, Democrats sent a letter to House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and the Joint Legislative Budget Commission about $12 million set aside for migrant-relocation efforts.

Incoming House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said DeSantis overstepped his authority in seeking to "score political points," as the budget allocation is for relocating people who are in the U.S. illegally and found in Florida. She said the people flown to Martha's Vineyard last week were mostly asylum seekers from Venezuela.

"By all accounts and everything that we've learned, these are folks who were seeking asylum from persecution in Venezuela and countries like that," Driskell, an attorney, said.

"So, to the extent that these folks were on U.S. soil legally, there's nothing that could have made his actions legal under Section 185 (of the budget) with these funds," Driskell continued. "Not even if the flight had originated in Florida."

House and Senate Republican leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The budget says the money is to transport "unauthorized aliens from this state consistent with federal law." The term "unauthorized alien" is defined in the budget as a person unlawfully present in the U.S. under the federal Immigration and Nationality Act.

The letter contends the assertion by DeSantis that people relocated to Massachusetts might have wanted to come to Florida isn't a sufficient reason to transport asylum seekers.

"I think there's better ways to integrate people into new communities, especially when you're talking about people that had fled communism, to have fled socialism, had fled dictators and authoritarians," House Minority Leader Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said.

The flights Wednesday mostly involved Venezuelan migrants and included about 10 children. They left San Antonio, Texas, and landed in the Florida Panhandle community of Crestview before ultimately traveling to Martha's Vineyard.

State records show the Florida Department of Transportation on Sept. 8 made a $615,000 payment to a company for "relocation of unauthorized aliens."

In relocating the migrants, DeSantis followed moves by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, both Republicans, who have bused migrants to places such as New York and Washington, D.C.

During an appearance Friday in Daytona Beach, DeSantis defended the relocation effort, which came after months of criticism by DeSantis and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody of the Biden Administration's handling of border and immigration issues. In part, they have targeted a White House effort to reverse a policy under former President Donald Trump that blocked migrants seeking asylum.

Without mentioning Venezuela, DeSantis differentiated between people seeking asylum and other migrants he contends have abused the asylum process.

"We have a lot of refugees. And we have people that come from Cuba, and they end up in the Keys. And they're seeking asylum. And a lot of them have valid claims. But I think what's happening is the asylum process is being abused, because they're trained by activist groups to claim asylum," DeSantis said.

"So, you'll have people that are in a whole bunch of safe countries, and they keep going from one safe country to the next, and then try to make an asylum claim in the United States. That's not how it works," DeSantis continued. "So, that's why President Trump's policy was really the right policy, to say, 'OK, if you're making these asylum claims' --- most of these are not valid, we know that, I don't think anyone disputes that --- so, you need to remain in Mexico while you're making the policy.' And that's the way it should be."

DeSantis acknowledged the state sought migrants in San Antonio who might have wanted to reach Florida.

Lisette Bonano, a Republican running against Driskell in House District 67, voiced support during the Democrats' conference call Monday for DeSantis' actions.

"You can't tell me you've vetted every one of these people that are coming in ... that they're not Talabani, they're not ISIS, because they're taken advantage of these open borders right now and coming in and like any enemy would," Bonano said. "I feel for Venezuelans. I feel for anyone trying to escape their nations under the tyranny that they're under. But the thing is, we have got to take care of our people first."

DeSantis also argued Friday that many Democrats voted for the state budget that includes the funding.

"They're complaining now, but they all voted for it," DeSantis said.

Driskell said just because lawmakers voted for the overall $109.9 billion budget doesn't mean they endorse every aspect of the spending plan.

"When we vote for that budget, a 'yes' vote certainly is to act in accordance with the law, and any type of implementing bills that come along with that budget," Driskell said. "A vote for the budget is not a carte blanche, just approval of the governor to do whatever he wants with that $12 million pool of money and for him to go beyond the scope of the law as it was intended."

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