TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Migrants taken to Martha’s Vineyard by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis filed a class-action lawsuit on Tuesday, suing the governor, the state of Florida, and various officials in both their official and individual capacities. Their attorneys say the migrants are now getting death threats.

The lawsuit was filed by migrants represented by Alianza Americas, a transnational organization focused on helping Latino immigrant communities in the United States.

At a Wednesday news conference about the class-action effort, Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, discussed what the organization called analysis of the events, then the lawsuit itself. Espinoza-Madrigal is one of the attorneys representing the migrants in federal court, through the organization Lawyers for Civil Rights, which provides free legal services.

After lawsuit filed, migrants face death threats

A spokeswoman for Alianza Americas, Ellyssa Pachico said the plaintiffs were receiving death threats.

Attorney Espinoza-Madrigal, representing the migrants, said after the civil action was the first of its kind, saying the class-action lawsuit represented not only those who had been sent to Martha’s Vineyard, but all immigrants who were transported after arriving in the United States in a similar fashion, saying politicians who moved migrants were endangering their lives and said they are seeking a national injunction against the practice.

Due to the circumstances detailed in the lawsuit, Espinoza-Madrigal said his clients were seeking damages for their experiences.

“Our clients have received a barrage of hate messages,” Espinoza-Madrigal said. “Our clients continue to receive hate messages and death threats that are arriving at the office of Lawyers for Civil Rights, that have arrived at the office of Alianza Americas, our organizational plaintiff in this case.”

He said they have requested the court’s assistance in protecting the plaintiffs’ identities and asked to allow the case to proceed anonymously. That request was approved Wednesday morning, according to Espinoza-Madrigal.

Another lawyer suing DeSantis and his co-defendants said the effort since the migrants arrived has been fast.

“Since Wednesday night, Lawyers for Civil Rights has been in rapid response mode, addressing the unfolding humanitarian events surrounding the unlawful relocation of immigrants through fraudulent means,” Mirian Albert, staff attorney at LCR, said. “For nearly a week now, Lawyers for Civil Rights has been working with approximately 50 immigrants who were deceived by conspirators perpetrating a fraudulent scheme and using them as political props. Gov. DeSantis of Florida has taken credit and public responsibility for the Martha’s Vineyard political stunt, preying on destitute immigrants, including women and children.”

The lawsuit filed in federal court names Ronald DeSantis, Governor of Florida in his official and personal Capacities; Jared W. Perdue, Secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation in his official and personal Capacities; State of Florida; The Florida Department of Transportation and five unnamed defendants as targets of the lawsuit.

Less than 24 hours after the lawsuit was filed, attorneys for the migrants described threats against the plaintiffs, Alianza Americas, Yanet Doe, Pablo Doe, and Jesus Doe, “on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situation,” being the remaining individuals who were transported to Massachusetts.

“Our clients are sharing alarming and chilling stories, they have survived harrowing experiences, not just in their journey to the United States, but also with the fraudulent relocation scheme,” Albert said. “We’re talking about a man who was tortured and rendered toothless, while kidnapped his teeth were pulled with pliers. We are talking about children who arrived on the island in need of medical attention. The perpetrators abandoned them without shelter, food, or resources for support on Martha’s Vineyard.”

Albert praised the community for stepping up to help.

The lawsuit’s claims

The 48 migrants, some of whom are children under the age of 12. As previously reported, the youngest individual transported to Martha’s Vineyard was 3 years old. The suit claims DeSantis fraudulently transported the 48 individuals, most of whom were from Venezuela and had entered the United States in Texas.

According to the lawsuit filed by Alianza Americas, the migrants “have led lives inflicted by violence, instability, insecurity, and abuse of trust by corrupt government officials that most Americans could hardly conceive of.” To that end, “they fled to the United States” to find safety and opportunity, and to “protect themselves and their families from gang, police, and state-sponsored violence and the oppression of political dissent.”

They sought asylum. After crossing the southern border of the U.S. in Texas, Alianza Americas said in the suit that the plaintiffs “immediately surrendered themselves to federal immigration officials.”

The process of requesting asylum or other legal statuses requires them to wait while federal adjudication is pending. While doing so, “plaintiffs are authorized by federal immigration officials to remain in the United States,” according to the lawsuit.

In September 2022, the defendants named in the suit, DeSantis and the rest, including “unidentified accomplices,” are accused of “designing and executing a premeditated, fraudulent, and illegal scheme centered on exploiting this vulnerability for the sole purpose of advancing their own personal, financial and political interests.”

It goes further, saying the as-yet unidentified defendants identified and targeted the migrants “by trolling streets outside of a migrant shelter in Texas and other similar locales, pretending to be good Samaritans offering humanitarian assistance.”

To gain the migrants’ trust, the defendants allegedly gave them McDonalds gift cards and promised to help them find housing, education, and jobs, if they “were willing to board airplanes to other states.” The lawsuit says the defendants “made false promises and false representations” to convince them. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit also said they were promised assistance with their immigration efforts.

Then, Florida officials told the migrants that they’d be taken to areas such as Boston, Mass. or the District of Columbia. Instead, they paid $615,000 in taxpayer dollars to Vertol Systems Company, Inc. to arrange for the 48 individuals to be privately flown to Martha’s Vineyard. Officials in Massachusetts maintain that they were never informed, and had to rise to the “huge challenge” of helping them with no warning, as described by Elizabeth Folcarelli, of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.

“The legislature gave me $12 million dollars,” DeSantis said said after the migrants arrived in Massachusetts. “We’re going to spend every penny of that.”

DeSantis then took credit for the transportation move saying it was how the state planned to use the $12 million provided by state lawmakers to fly migrants out of Florida, and that he intended to use all of it to do so. However, the only time the migrants were in Florida was a quick stop in Crestview before being taken to South Carolina, and finally arriving in Martha’s Vineyard.

The lawsuit by Alianza Americas says the strategy employed by DeSantis and other Florida officials made the migrants experience the very things they’d tried to escape from their homelands.

“Defendants manipulated them, stripped them of their dignity, deprived them of their liberty, bodily autonomy, due process, and equal protection under law, and impermissibly interfered with the Federal Government’s exclusive control over immigration in furtherance of an unlawful goal and a personal political agenda,” the lawsuit claims.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys are still working to identify the Doe defendants, saying they would disclose their identities and update the lawsuit with their names, once the work was complete.

Florida, on the flights

According to statements made by the governor after the event, it was not a political stunt, but a way to highlight the broken immigration system under President Joe Biden.

“They were provided an ability to be in the most posh sanctuary jurisdiction in the world, and obviously it’s sad that Martha’s Vineyard deported them the next day,” DeSantis said in Bradenton, Tuesday. “They could have absorbed this, they chose not to. What it shows you is that if 50 is a burden on one of the richest places in the country, what about all of these other communities that have been overrun with hundreds or thousands?”

He went further, saying that Biden’s policies were indefensible, and were costing lives and money, as well as damaging the United States.

“Why don’t you step up and tell him ‘you’re failing’ and why aren’t we doing this differently?” DeSantis said. “Now at least we know, nobody can deny there is a crisis. Everybody now knows, and it was only because you have the elite who want to have the cost on everybody else and don’t want to have to shoulder that. That’s the only reason people want to talk about this.”

Statements about the lawsuit

Advocates working on behalf of the migrants, in relation to the lawsuit itself, said the transportation effort by the governor was done to sow confusion. They called it “morally despicable” and said it was not humanitarian.

“For the governor of Florida to cynically use recently arrived immigrants who have applied for asylum in the U.S., to advance a hate-driven agenda intended to create confusion and rejection throughout the country, is not only morally despicable but utterly contrary to the best traditions of humanitarian protection embraced by most Americans,” Oscar Chacón, Alianza Americas’ executive director, said about the lawsuit. “That is why we have taken the step to legally challenge what we view not only as a morally reprehensible action but what we believe is also illegal.”

The response from the governor’s office to the lawsuit, sent to reporters at WFLA.com after it was filed, did not directly address the claims made in the class-action legal effort.

Instead, it claims the migrants were transported to Martha’s Vineyard voluntarily, and that the individuals were “homeless, hungry, and abandoned.” The governor’s office accused advocates for the migrants of not caring about them.

“It is opportunistic that activists would use illegal immigrants for political theater. If these activists spent even a fraction of this time and effort at the border, perhaps some accountability would be brought to the Biden Administration’s reckless border policies that entice illegal immigrants to make dangerous and often lethal journeys through Central America and put their lives in the hands of cartels and Coyotes,” Communications Director Taryn Fenske said in part. “Florida’s program gave them a fresh start in a sanctuary state and these individuals opted to take advantage of chartered flights to Massachusetts. It was disappointing that Martha’s Vineyard called in the Massachusetts National Guard to bus them away from the island within 48 hours.”

Before the statement from the governor’s office arrived, he claimed at a speech in Bradenton that the migrants were being treated “horribly” by the Biden administration.