Several Venezuelan migrants who were flown to the small Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard are now suing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his transportation secretary.
The federal lawsuit alleges that the migrants were persuaded to cross state lines under false pretenses.
After VERIFY published a story and subsequent TikTok video confirming that Florida allocated $12 million for a program to transport migrants out of the state, some viewers claimed the flights to Martha’s Vineyard actually originated in Texas rather than Florida. They wanted VERIFY to look into whether Florida paid to transport the migrants from Texas.
Did Florida pay for migrants to fly from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard?
Yes, Florida paid for migrants to fly from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.
WHAT WE FOUND
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, located in San Antonio, confirmed that migrants were flown from Texas on flights paid for by the state of Florida before eventually arriving in Martha’s Vineyard.
In June 2022, DeSantis signed the 2022-2023 Freedom First Budget, totaling $109.9 billion. That budget allocated $12 million for a “program within the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) to transport unauthorized aliens” out of the state.
Taryn Fenske, DeSantis’ communications director, previously confirmed to VERIFY that the two planes that landed in Martha’s Vineyard were “part of the state’s relocation program.”
Records show that the Florida Department of Transportation paid $615,000 to Vertol Systems Company, Inc., an aviation company based in Oregon and operating in Destin, Florida, on Sept. 8 for the state’s “relocation program of unauthorized aliens.” The payment was made nearly a week before the planes arrived at Martha’s Vineyard.
VERIFY sister station WTSP reported on Sept. 21 that Florida paid Vertol Systems Company another $950,000, though DeSantis would not confirm if the money is for another migrant flight.
During a press conference on Sept. 16, DeSantis confirmed that the Venezuelan migrants “went from Texas to Florida to Martha’s Vineyard.”
DeSantis said the state has sent “contractors” to Texas who are “identifying people that are trying to come to Florida and then offering them free transportation to sanctuary jurisdictions,” such as Massachusetts and other U.S. states.
Though the migrants came from Texas, a spokesperson for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott confirmed that his office was not involved in funding the flights out of the state.
“Our office has had conversations with Governor DeSantis and his team about supporting our busing strategy to provide much-needed relief to our overwhelmed and overrun border communities,” Abbott’s press secretary Renae Eze said in a statement. “Though we were not involved in these initial planes to Martha’s Vineyard, we appreciate the support in responding to this national crisis and helping Texans.”
DeSantis’ office did not respond to questions about how Florida was able to use funding allocated by the state’s budget to fly migrants from Texas.
Florida’s migrant flights from Texas have sparked an investigation by law enforcement officials in the San Antonio area.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar announced on Sept. 19 that he has opened a criminal investigation against those who “lured and transported” 48 migrants from the Migrant Resource Center in San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard.
Salazar said during a press conference that a Venuzulean migrant was paid a fee to recruit approximately 50 others from the area around the San Antonio center.
“As we understand it, 48 migrants were lured – I will use the word lured – under false pretenses into staying at a hotel for a couple of days,” Salazar said. “They were taken by airplane at a certain point, they were shuttled to an airplane, where they were flown to Florida and then eventually to Martha’s Vineyard.”
An attorney representing the migrants contacted the sheriff’s office to inform law enforcement about the accusations that migrants were flown from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard “under false pretenses,” the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office said in an emailed statement.
Salazar said during the press conference that the migrants were promised work and a “solution to several of their problems,” though he did not expand upon this further.
DeSantis has asserted that the migrants voluntarily boarded the flights paid for by the state of Florida.
The sheriff’s office told VERIFY that the plane reportedly “departed from Kelly/Lackland AFB, specifically from Atlantic Aviation.”
Kelly Field Annex is a former Air Force facility that is now part of Joint Base San Antonio in Texas. Though it is no longer considered an Air Force base and private citizens can fly out of Kelly Field, it is still owned and operated by the U.S. military.
VERIFY reached out to the Air Force for a statement about the migrant flights but did not receive a response by the time of publishing.
In response to the sheriff’s investigation, Fenske again defended the decision to fly migrants from Texas to the East Coast.
“Immigrants have been more than willing to leave Bexar County after being abandoned, homeless, and ‘left to fend for themselves.’ Florida gave them an opportunity to seek greener pastures in a sanctuary jurisdiction that offered greater resources for them, as we expected,” Fenske said. “Unless the MA national guard has abandoned these individuals, they have been provided accommodations, sustenance, clothing and more options to succeed following their unfair enticement into the United States, unlike the 53 immigrants who died in a truck found abandoned in Bexar County this June.”
This story will be updated as VERIFY learns more about the migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard.