Ron DeSantis has real issues. No, we’re not talking about him trailing Donald Trump in the polls or his clumsiness as a retail politician. Far more concerning are the removals and criminal investigations surrounding the DeSantis administration’s relocation of migrants from Texas to Massachusetts and California — criminal investigations in which the governor of Florida may have gotten involved, by his own boasting.
Last September, a group of 48 mostly Venezuelan migrants who had surrendered to immigration officials after crossing the border – many of whom are believed to be seeking asylum – were boarded on planes and transported from Texas at Martha’s Vineyard at the request and expense of the DeSantis administration. It is alleged that the migrants were lured onto the flights with false promises of jobs, housing, educational opportunities and other forms of assistance. They apparently received official-looking documents, such as a bogus agency brochure, which gave the false impression that the trip was part of the normal immigration process.
The stunt was arguably criminal, and at least some of those involved appear to have been referred for prosecution by Texas law enforcement.
Of course, it was no such thing. Rather, it was part of a political ploy devised by Florida officials, evidently so DeSantis could rant about immigration policy, which remains red meat for the MAGA base. We can infer that from the fact that DeSantis repeatedly bragged about these events, making it a staple of his stump speeches, and tried to justify the $1.5 million price paid by Florida taxpayers for migrant flights and the $12 million item in Florida’s 2023 Budget.
Indeed, some of DeSantis’ conduct, as well as that of his minions, is disturbingly reminiscent of the tactics of the various autocrats that Florida voters and their families shunned. This includes the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Venezuelan victims of the DeSantis administration’s deception are fleeing persecution from Maduro, a leftist despot who embraces Marxist ideology to support the suppression of free speech and the imprisonment and torture of political opponents. The United States has a long history of providing asylum to people fleeing communist and other authoritarian regimes.
Markey calls for federal investigation into DeSantis’ Martha’s Vineyard maneuver
Republican politicians of the past were often the first to welcome victims of left-wing authoritarianism to America, and DeSantis’ home state has many residents, now US citizens, who have fled Cuba. Federal law specifies how immigration authorities must treat migrant asylum seekers. No state government official, including DeSantis, has the right to undermine this law or the immigration process, let alone do so by illegally detaining migrants or any other crime.
Let’s put aside the cruelty of exploiting vulnerable immigrants for political gain. Worse, the stunt was arguably criminal, and at least some of those involved appear to have been referred for prosecution by Texas law enforcement.
As one author of this article noted when the story first broke, Texas law criminalizes “unlawful restraint”: intentionally restricting a person’s movements or moving them from one place to another without his consent. The law specifically says that there is no consent in case of deception (as well as force or intimidation). DeSantis said the migrants left voluntarily, but it’s hardly a defense if they were deceived in any meaningful way, such as where they were going, by whom, for what purpose and what awaited them.
Texas also criminalizes the exploitation of children and the elderly, defined as the illegal or abusive use of someone for monetary or personal gain. Children and the elderly were reportedly on board the flight to Martha’s Vineyard, and the stunt certainly benefited DeSantis by allowing him exposure to the media. There was probably also a fundraising benefit; DeSantis reportedly informed major party donors of the Martha’s Vineyard move before it happened and used it to solicit campaign contributions.
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There are also other potential criminal violations emanating from this incident, both state and federal. These range from fraudulent use of personal information to human trafficking. After facts about the Martha’s Vineyard trip began to emerge, Bexar County, Texas Sheriff Javier Salazar announced a criminal investigation into the matter. (Flights to Martha’s Vineyard departed from San Antonio, in Salazar’s jurisdiction.) Recently, Sheriff Salazar revealed that his agency had concluded its investigation and referred the case to the local district attorney’s office for charges to be filed. At this time, it is not publicly known who he may have named or faced charges, although state crime and the misdemeanor of unlawful duress are among them.
After several years of the Trump presidency and its aftermath, awash in scandals, lawsuits and investigations, a crucial question is whether our nation is ready to abandon leaders who attack the rule of law.
Salazar did not indicate he was likely to charge DeSantis, and his office earlier said it would only consider charges against those who were physically present in the jurisdiction, which DeSantis was not. However, under Texas law, charges against the governor should not be ruled out. Under Section 13.13 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, a defendant may be charged with conspiracy “in the county where the [conspiratorial] the agreement had to be executed. Since the object of the conspiracy was apparently to deceive migrants in Bexar County, DeSantis could be charged there, regardless of where DeSantis made the conspiracy deal. Whether or not the sheriff specifically named DeSantis , prosecutors should investigate him.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, news of Salazar’s criminal referral came alongside news of possible additional crimes involving DeSantis. The California Attorney General’s office is investigating the case of 36 migrants who were recently abandoned outside a church in Sacramento after being transported on two flights from El Paso. After California Attorney General Rob Bonta said evidence suggested Florida officials were responsible and promised to aggressively investigate what he called the “moral failure” incident, Florida authorities have admitted responsibility. California false imprisonment law is similar to Texas unlawful restraints law and can also be a misdemeanor or a felony. California Governor Gavin Newsom raised questions about kidnapping, a more serious crime defined as moving someone by force or fear. Florida officials countered that the relocations were voluntary and that the migrants had given verbal and written consent.
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Legal analysts immediately began to question whether or not criminal charges could be brought — and could extend to DeSantis. He did little to distance himself from the issue, saying on a trip to the Arizona-Mexico border that “sanctuary jurisdictions” in states like Massachusetts and California were among the why America has this “problem” and saying, “When they have to deal with some of the fruits of this, they all of a sudden get very, very upset about it.” DeSantis also said that the His administration’s handling of migrants “had been debated” and “approved” by Florida lawmakers who had agreed to set aside millions for the program.
The California investigation is at a much earlier stage than the Texas one; there’s plenty of time for either investigation to determine DeSantis’ guilt, if any. These new revelations and remarks underscore the need for prosecutors to take a close look at the role of the Florida governor.
DeSantis has emerged as a serious challenger to Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, based largely on championing culture warfare tactics that strain, or in some cases violate, the rule of law. Regardless of the migrant scandals, courts have already declared unconstitutional many of its signature laws: dictating how race is discussed in school, telling social media companies what they can and cannot say, and criminalizing peaceful protests. A court ruled that the suspension of a twice-elected prosecutor was politically motivated, in violation of federal and state laws. And DeSantis’ war with Disney after the entertainment giant criticized the “Don’t Say Gay” law has been characterized by that company as a “targeted campaign of orchestrated government retaliation — as punishment for Disney protected speech.”
After several years of the Trump presidency and its aftermath, awash in scandals, lawsuits and investigations, a crucial question is whether our nation is ready to abandon leaders who attack the rule of law. As far as Ron DeSantis is concerned, that question should be answered by prosecutors in Texas or California — and by voters across America.
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