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Judge urged to clear way for migrant flights case

Photo by Mitchel Lensink on Unsplash

By Jim Saunders

News Service of Florida

May 15, 2023

TALLAHASSEE --- Plaintiffs last week fired back after Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration argued that a federal judge should dismiss a potential class-action lawsuit filed after Florida flew 49 migrants from Texas to Massachusetts in September.

Attorneys for three migrants from Venezuela and the non-profit group Alianza Americas filed a 106-page document in federal court in Massachusetts disputing a series of arguments raised by the DeSantis administration in a Feb. 28 motion to dismiss the case.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys described the flights as a “shocking abuse of power” designed to boost DeSantis’ political profile in advance of a potential run for the White House in 2024.

“This is a case about defendants’ unlawful, tortious and inhumane manipulation of a group of 49 immigrants newly arrived to the United States, many of whom did not or barely spoke English, in order to further defendants’ agenda and political aspirations,” a legal memorandum, filed Thursday, said. “Despite defendants’ attempt to characterize this case as one about national immigration policy, it is not. Rather, at its heart, this case is about whether the laws of the United States and of Massachusetts permit state officials and their cronies to lure innocent people onto a plane with false promises of jobs, housing, and support, and dump them in an unknown place where they were not expected.”

The lawsuit, filed in September and revised in November, alleges that the flights violated federal and Massachusetts laws, including violating migrants’ due-process and equal-protection rights. Defendants include DeSantis, other DeSantis administration officials, the Florida Department of Transportation, contractor Vertol Systems Company, Inc. and alleged organizer Perla Huerta.

The lawsuit seeks damages and an injunction to prevent the state from “inducing immigrants to travel across state lines by fraud and misrepresentation.”

The DeSantis administration paid $615,000 to Vertol to fly the migrants Sept. 14 from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, with a brief stop in the Northwest Florida community of Crestview. The flights, which spurred national attention, came as DeSantis frequently criticized federal border policies.

In the Feb. 28 motion to dismiss the case, lawyers for the DeSantis administration raised a series of procedural and substantive issues.

“Plaintiffs obviously disagree with Florida’s policies and political leaders,” the state’s attorneys wrote in a memorandum of law. “But those disagreements are no substitute for asserting plausible facts or viable legal theories, or for overcoming fatal jurisdictional and immunity obstacles. They are also not a valid legal basis for hauling Florida, one of its agencies, the head of its executive branch and three other state officials into a Massachusetts courtroom.”

As an example, the state’s attorneys wrote that a Massachusetts federal court should not have jurisdiction over the case.

“To be sure, the planes landed in Massachusetts,” the state’s attorneys argued. “But plaintiffs’ claims all arose before the plane touched down.”

The plaintiffs’ attorneys, however, disputed such arguments in the filing last week. The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs.

“Plaintiffs were injured in the Commonwealth (of Massachusetts),” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote. “Defendants engaged in a concerted, multi-state scheme to entice the unwitting individual plaintiffs onto flights to Martha’s Vineyard where they were falsely imprisoned, then abandoned and humiliated in a publicity stunt contrived for DeSantis’ personal and political gain.”

Also, the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued they had sufficiently raised claims of federal constitutional violations.

“The scheme, at its core, denied class plaintiffs their liberty in the most fundamental sense by tricking them into boarding planes under false pretenses and only revealing the planes’ true destination once escape was impossible, and impermissibly interfering with access to their immigration proceedings,” the document said.

The Legislature last year included $12 million in the state budget for the Department of Transportation to carry out a “program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.” The DeSantis administration used part of that money to pay Vertol.

But amid the lawsuit in Massachusetts and another case in state court in Leon County, the Legislature on Feb. 10 passed a bill that sought to neutralize legal arguments against the handling of the flights.

In part, the bill repealed the part of the budget that was used to pay for the flights and created the Unauthorized Alien Transport Program in state law. Also, the bill funneled remaining money provided in the budget section back to state coffers, and allocated $10 million to the newly created program — effectively swapping out money.

That led to a Leon County circuit judge dismissing the lawsuit filed in state court. The DeSantis administration attorneys also has argued that the new law should scuttle part of the Massachusetts case, saying that the disputed section of the budget has “been repealed so it is impossible for any plaintiff to be subjected to future transportation” under the section.

DeSantis last week signed an immigration bill (SB 1718) that provided $12 million for the program in the coming year.

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