Politics|Is That Legal? How Scores of Migrants Came to Be Shipped North
WASHINGTON — A pair of southern Republican governors this week used scores of migrants in a political stunt designed to bludgeon Democrats about the state of the nation’s immigration system, loading the migrants onto airplanes and buses bound for heavily progressive places to the north.
But while the political message from Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas was clear, the abrupt drop-offs left uncertain what would happen to the human beings involved and raised complicated questions about how the immigration system works, what rights migrants have and what legal issues are involved.
Immigration lawyers and legal observers said they were still determining whether any laws were broken when Mr. Abbott sent nearly a hundred migrants, including children, to be dropped off by bus without warning outside the vice president’s residence in Washington, and when Mr. DeSantis arranged for about 50 more to be flown on chartered planes to Martha’s Vineyard, the island vacation spot in Massachusetts.
Here’s what we know so far.
The migrants were already in immigration limbo.
The migrants transported to Martha’s Vineyard are Venezuelans who recently crossed the southwest border without authorization and turned themselves in to border officials. The migrants who were dropped at Vice President Kamala Harris’s home were from Colombia, Cuba, Guyana, Nicaragua and Panama and came into the country in the same manner.
After they were taken into custody, they were screened and released to face proceedings in the future. The Biden administration has been using this process with nearly all of the Cuban and Venezuelan border crossers because it lacks the diplomatic relations with those countries that would be necessary to send them back to those countries.
But many of the migrants likely plan to claim asylum, declaring that they face violence or persecution in their home countries and are afraid to return. Under American law, any migrant has the right to do so, starting a process in which federal officials determine whether the claim is valid and they can obtain authorization to reside legally in the United States.
That process faces a yearslong backlog, meaning that these migrants, like many in the United States, are living in a state of immigration limbo.
It’s legal for states to transport migrants, but the drop-offs raise questions.
Under the law, once migrants have been released by border officials and served documents to appear in court, they are no longer in federal custody and are free to travel within the United States. It is not illegal for a state government to pay for that travel.
But if there is evidence the migrants were lied to by state officials about where they were going or what awaited them, as some attorneys have alleged, the migrants could pursue tort suits for fraud or severe emotional distress, according to Heidi Li Feldman, a professor at Georgetown University.
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director for Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston who is representing some of the migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard, said his clients were denied their constitutional right to due process, since the trip to Massachusetts likely means they will be unable to attend their immigration court appointments in San Antonio, Texas.
“If you are coerced and induced onto an airplane under false promises and told you’ll be flying to one place and directed somewhere else in midair, that is a deprivation of liberty the Constitution forbids,” Mr. Espinoza-Madrigal said.
Some lawyers have also said that federal agents deliberately listed incorrect addresses for the migrants, which would prevent them from receiving proper notifications for their immigration hearings. But it was unclear whether any laws were broken; it is not uncommon for a federal agent confronting a migrant who does not have an address in the United States to list the name of a homeless shelter in the destination to which the migrant says they are headed.
While critics have compared the actions of Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Abbott to human trafficking or kidnapping, multiple lawyers cast doubt on the possibility that they could be prosecuted for such crimes because no evidence has surfaced that the migrants boarded the flights or buses unwillingly.
Top Trump officials first weighed migrant drop-offs.
Nonprofit organizations have for years helped migrants pay for flights and buses to join friends and relatives around the United States.
But the plan for the government to use migrant drop-offs in Democratic cities and towns dates back to former President Donald J. Trump’s administration, when it was embraced by Stephen Miller, his senior adviser and the architect of his immigration policies. Mr. Miller and other immigration hard-liners in the administration saw the move as a way to retaliate against so-called sanctuary cities that limited their cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
The idea was ultimately scrapped after it was rejected by Matthew Albence, then the acting deputy director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who raised concerns about liability issues if a migrant was injured during transport. He also said the agency’s budget had not been appropriated for the drop-offs.
Critics of the recent migrant drop-offs have made comparisons to the so-called Reverse Freedom Rides arranged by white segregationists in 1962 to retaliate against those protesting segregation in the South.
The segregationists misleadingly promised jobs and permanent housing to Black Americans, leading about 200 of them to travel north. Those families, too, were dropped off in Massachusetts, near the holiday home of President John F. Kennedy.