Migrants in San Antonio lured onto Massachusetts flights with false promises of housing and jobs

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration orchestrated the private flights to Martha’s Vineyard, offering work and free rent. Advocates plan to pursue legal ramifications for those involved.

click to enlarge Migrants visiting the San Antonio's Migrant Resource Center hope to receive resources and help getting to their final destination. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration orchestrated private flights San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, offering false promises of work and free rent. - Texas Tribune / Chris Stokes
Texas Tribune / Chris Stokes
Migrants visiting the San Antonio's Migrant Resource Center hope to receive resources and help getting to their final destination. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration orchestrated private flights San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, offering false promises of work and free rent.

While the beachside Massachusetts community of Martha’s Vineyard was buzzing with tourists this summer, 22-year-old Eduardo, his wife and their 7-year-old daughter weathered abductions and beatings by a Mexican cartel as they made the arduous journey from Peru toward the U.S.-Mexico border.

After finally reaching the United States, they applied for asylum, spent a few days in federal detention and ended up in San Antonio’s Migrant Resource Center, waiting for their application to be processed.

The large one-story building set amid strip malls on the city’s north side allows people to stay there for only three nights. So Eduardo and his family soon found themselves on the streets, without shelter. That’s when Eduardo was approached by a tall, blonde woman going by the name Perla. He said she offered his family a free trip to Boston — where she promised a job and shelter awaited them.

“When they told us that they were going to help us with the rent, to get a job, that was the only option left to us,” Eduardo said after arriving in Massachusetts this week.

So the three boarded one of at least two private planes with about 50 other migrants who were also promised jobs and months of free rent. Yet just before their arrival, they were told they were instead going to Martha’s Vineyard — an island south of Cape Cod, hours away from Massachusetts’ largest city.

click to enlarge San Antonio's Migrant Resource Center allows people to stay there for only three nights. - Texas Tribune / Chris Stokes
Texas Tribune / Chris Stokes
San Antonio's Migrant Resource Center allows people to stay there for only three nights.

The chartered flights from San Antonio to New England escalated the trend of Republican governors, including Texas’ Greg Abbott, sending migrants seeking stable lives in America to Democratic-led states.

The migrants’ arrivals on Martha’s Vineyard caught local officials and residents by surprise, though they quickly sprung into action alongside dozens of islanders who were suddenly thrust into a new and startling chapter in the nation’s long-running political war over immigration.

click to enlarge Eduardo Linares' backpack in the back of a pickup truck at the San Antonio's Migrant Resource Center on Friday. - Texas Tribune / Chris Stokes
Texas Tribune / Chris Stokes
Eduardo Linares' backpack in the back of a pickup truck at the San Antonio's Migrant Resource Center on Friday.

The flights also triggered outrage among immigration rights groups and Democrats who have accused the Republicans of engaging in human trafficking and treating migrants like “human cargo” to score political points.

And on Friday, the League of United Latin American Citizens began offering a $5,000 reward for information about the mysterious Perla, whom it accuses of breaking the law by promising work to asylum-seekers who aren’t allowed to hold jobs as they wait for their federal immigration cases to play out.

By then, many of the migrants were being housed at Joint Base Cape Cod in Massachusetts. And they were skeptical that the woman who made them promises was named Perla at all.

“I really don’t know if she’s called that or not, because in the end they’re all tricks,” said Alejandro, who traveled from Caracas, Venezuela, to San Antonio before then being flown to New England.

The next frontier

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis chartered the flights, though his administration did not respond to questions as to why Florida taxpayers paid to transport people from Texas to Massachusetts in a political stunt meant to draw attention to the increasing number of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border

DeSantis’ move closely resembles Abbott’s strategy to bus migrants to Democratic-led cities in response to the high number of Texas-Mexico border crossings. On Thursday, Abbott sent buses to the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., where Vice President Kamala Harris resides. Both Abbott’s buses and DeSantis’ flights have drawn criticism for exploiting vulnerable migrants for political points.

click to enlarge A migrant sits on a curb at the resource center in San Antonio. - Texas Tribune / Chris Stokes
Texas Tribune / Chris Stokes
A migrant sits on a curb at the resource center in San Antonio.

Republicans frequently refer to people who aren’t American citizens but cross into the country as “illegal immigrants,” but many of them are asylum-seekers who have been allowed to enter the country pending the outcomes of their legal cases.

While the migrant transportation policy elicited a polarized response nationally, recent polling from Texas suggests a majority of the state’s voters support the governor’s initiative to bus migrants to other parts of the country. According to the polling, 51% approved of the policy and 35% opposed it.

For many of those who arrived in New England, the flights were just the latest leg in tenuous, fraught journeys from dangerous countries. Many of the people who filtered in and out of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, Massachusetts, on Thursday morning were from Venezuela.

Lisa Belcastro, a shelter organizer on Martha’s Vineyard, said she was glad she was able to welcome the migrants and offer them kindness. She said the assembly of volunteers who showed up were able to provide some sense of peace to the otherwise tumultuous day.

“None of them wanted to come to Martha’s Vineyard. They’ve never heard of Martha’s Vineyard. This was a political move,” Belcastro said. “Not one person has asked for a handout; they have asked to work.”

click to enlarge Venezuelan migrants and volunteers celebrate together outside of St. Andrew's Parish House in Martha’s Vineyard on Friday. - Boston Globe / Carlin Stiehl
Boston Globe / Carlin Stiehl
Venezuelan migrants and volunteers celebrate together outside of St. Andrew's Parish House in Martha’s Vineyard on Friday.

The 3,000-mile trek Venezuelans take from South America to the United States is a dangerous one. In order to make the trip, they have to make the perilous journey through the Darien Gap, a 66-mile roadless stretch of jungle, mountains and rivers between Colombia and Panama.

Migrants interviewed by The Texas Tribune have said that along the way, they’ve witnessed women get raped, families robbed, and bodies of people who got lost or too tired to continue.

Eduardo Linares left his home in Caracas, Venezuela, at the end of May. He said there was little opportunity there — even meals were hard to come by. So he walked across Mexico alongside about 30 people, rarely making stops along the way.

“It’s the craziest thing I’ve done in my entire life,” he told the Tribune on Friday.

Venezuelans have been fleeing their home country amid social unrest and political turmoil. The South American country was once one of the richest in Latin America. The United States then imposed economic sanctions on the Venezuelan government in an attempt to force President Nicolás Maduro out of power because American federal officials accused him of election fraud. Those sanctions caused the oil industry, which was the country’s economic engine, to collapse.

In recent years, 7 million Venezuelans have fled, making it the largest displacement in the Western Hemisphere and the second-largest in the world after the Syrian exodus.

By the end of July, Linares had crossed the Rio Grande and made his way to San Antonio. Since March, more than 120,000 migrants in need of shelter have arrived there. That prompted city officials in July to open the Migrant Resource Center to provide asylum-seekers a place to stay, food and help reaching their final destination, among other services.

“It’s something we didn’t have a choice in,” said City Council member Mario Bravo, whose district includes the center. “It’s a problem that we’re looking to solve in a humane way.”

Since it opened, the center has helped more than 24,000 migrants, city figures show. Migrants can stay there for up to three days, but most leave within 24 hours.

In a McDonald’s parking lot near the Migrant Resource Center, a blonde woman who spoke Spanish, though not well, approached Linares and offered him a proposition similar to the ones made to others. She’s believed to be the same woman who approached most of the migrants. She guaranteed him a job and a free trip to islands off the coast of Massachusetts.

“I told her I had to think about it because I didn’t even know where she was sending me,” he said Friday.

Linares ultimately turned her down because he was already finding odd jobs in San Antonio and scraping by. He also doesn’t know anyone in the northern United States. And he wasn’t confident she could deliver on what she was promising.

“I didn’t pay much attention to her because I saw her like the other ‘helpers’ that say they’re going to help, but they’re lies,” he said.

Challenges and conspiracy

As Massachusetts officials scrambled to find long-term housing and legal aid for migrants arriving there, immigration lawyers and Democratic politicians called for an investigation into whether their abrupt relocation to the island was illegal.

Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday asked Attorney General Merrick Garland to open an investigation into possible criminal or civil violations of federal law “based on this alleged fraudulent scheme.”

“Massachusetts isn’t the only place where this has happened,” said U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins. “We have several other sister communities, whether it’s D.C., New York, California, where we’ve seen things like this. And we’re hoping to get some input from the Department of Justice about what our next steps might be, if any at all.”

That was an apparent reference to Abbott’s previous moves busing migrants across the country. The Texas governor’s office says it’s transported at least 10,000 migrants to Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago — self-proclaimed “sanctuary cities” run by Democrats. Records show Texas has spent at least $12 million to fund the rides. The trips are under the umbrella of Abbott’s more than $4 billion border security initiative dubbed Operation Lone Star, intended to curb border crossings.

Meanwhile, LULAC is offering a $5,000 reward for information about the woman known as Perla. LULAC President Domingo Garcia traveled to Martha’s Vineyard on Friday and spoke with a handful of migrants about their experiences traveling to Massachusetts. Their stories of Perla and the false promises she made were almost identical.

click to enlarge Some of the roughly 50 Venezuelan migrants flown unannounced to Martha’s Vineyard island aboard the ferry Friday bound for temporary housing on Cape Cod. - Boston Globe / Carlin Stiehl
Boston Globe / Carlin Stiehl
Some of the roughly 50 Venezuelan migrants flown unannounced to Martha’s Vineyard island aboard the ferry Friday bound for temporary housing on Cape Cod.

“They were under the impression that they were being offered jobs,” Garcia told the Texas Tribune. “They didn’t realize that they were being taken to Martha’s Vineyard, they didn’t know where Martha’s Vineyard was, and of course, [that] they were being used as political props by Gov. DeSantis.”

Garcia said he plans to file a criminal complaint with the Bexar County district attorney against the woman who promised jobs to asylum-seekers, who cannot legally work in the United States while waiting to have an asylum claim heard. He says Perla, in promising work to the migrants, conspired and abetted the criminal offense of working in the U.S. without a work permit.

click to enlarge A bus carrying Venezuelan migrants from Martha's Vineyard arrives on a freight ferry in Wood Hole Friday morning. - Boston Globe / John Tlumacki
Boston Globe / John Tlumacki
A bus carrying Venezuelan migrants from Martha's Vineyard arrives on a freight ferry in Wood Hole Friday morning.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, said that the migrants were relocated to the Joint Base Cape Cod in Bourne, Massachusetts, where temporary shelter was offered.

“Our Administration has been working across state government to develop a plan to ensure these individuals will have access to the services they need going forward, and Joint Base Cape Cod is well equipped to serve these needs,” Baker said in a statement Friday.

Pablo, 27, was one of the migrants headed there Friday. He said he was impressed with how the Massachusetts authorities quickly reacted to get the group the help it needed.

“It is a great country, with many opportunities, and we come to add, to try to be part of society,” he said.

Back in San Antonio, several migrant families were outside a McDonald’s near the city’s migrant shelter where Linares met the woman calling herself Perla. Many had seen the woman earlier this week. Linares, who had turned down the offer for a flight, doesn’t think Perla was the woman’s real name. And he hasn’t seen her since Tuesday. But now, after hearing about people who took the flights to New England, he is second-guessing whether he should have gone, too.

“I’ve heard … from people that say they are good, they’re working and they’re good,” he said.

Joshua Fechter and Uriel J. García of The Texas Tribune; and Travis Andersen, Brittany Bowker, Samantha J. Gross, Brian MacQuarrie, Janelle Nanos and Matt Stout of The Boston Globe contributed to this story.

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