EDGARTOWN, Mass. — Migrants shipped to this elite vacation island by Florida’s Republican governor said on Friday that they had been misled about where they were being taken, prompting immigration lawyers to promise legal action as the group of Venezuelans were relocated temporarily to a federal military base.
The lawyers said they would seek an injunction in federal court early next week to stop the flights of migrants to cities around the country, alleging that the Republican governor had violated due process and the civil rights of the migrants flown from Texas to the small island off the coast of Massachusetts.
“They were told, ‘You have a hearing in San Antonio, but don’t worry, we’ll take you to Boston,’” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director for Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston. He said dozens of the migrants had told his team they only had been informed midair that they were going to land in tony Martha’s Vineyard rather than Boston.
“They were also told there would be employment opportunities and immigration relief available to them if they boarded the plane,” Mr. Espinoza-Madrigal said. “That’s not only state interference with federal immigration matters, it’s also a violation of our clients’ civil rights.”
The lawyers lobbed legal threats as Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida vehemently defended his actions, saying the flights were voluntary and denying that the migrants had been misled, and the White House condemned the governor for using human beings as political pawns.
“Luring asylum seekers under false pretenses and then abandoning them on the side of the road thousands of miles away is not the solution to a global challenge — in fact, those are the kinds of tactics that smugglers are arrested for,” said Abdullah Hasan, a White House spokesman.
The drama underscored the decades-old shortcomings of a backlogged immigration system groaning under the weight of thousands of migrants fleeing persecution and economic instability. And it demonstrated once again how easily the fate of immigrants can be swept up in a toxic political battle, especially in election season.
A fleet of buses arrived at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown on Friday morning to ferry about 50 migrants — many of them dazed and a bit confused, but happy to be in the United States at last — to Joint Base Cape Cod, a temporary shelter.
Many of the migrants described having traveled for more than two months from Venezuela as they made their way through half a dozen or more countries to reach the United States, where they have a legal right to seek asylum. Once in Texas, they said they had been offered transportation to Massachusetts — on flights arranged by Mr. DeSantis at Florida’s expense that were designed to grab headlines about what he calls lax border security just weeks before voting begins.
Pedro Torrealba, from Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, said he was told the plane he had boarded was going to arrive at a shelter where there would be housing and work, something that proved not to be true.
But for migrants like Mr. Torrealba and Luis, who declined to give his last name, the charter flight ended up being just what they wanted — a ticket away from the border while they wait for the slow-moving immigration system to determine whether they can stay for the long term.
“I didn’t expect it to be like this, but I feel comfortable here,” said Luis, who had traveled two months from Caracas to reach Texas before being conveyed to Martha’s Vineyard. “I want to be here.”
Mr. Torrealba, who worked as a trucker in Venezuela and barely made enough to feed his entire family, said he was pleased to have almost made it to a big American city where he can hopefully find work.
“I feel really good,” he said. “Before we got here, I felt a little lost, because I didn’t know if I was going to get here. But now that I’m here, honestly, I don’t want to leave.”
Many of the thousands of migrants arriving at the southern border each day are caught or surrender themselves to the Border Patrol. They are processed and then released with an order to come back for a hearing in months or even years. Most have relatives in America’s big cities: Miami, Los Angeles, New York or Washington, D.C. In the past, they often found bus or plane tickets to those places from friends or nonprofit groups.
Now, they are escaping the border region by becoming props in an effort by Republican governors like Mr. DeSantis, Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Ducey of Arizona, to use immigration as a political weapon against Democrats.
It remains uncertain whether that effort will move voters in the fall. In 2018, former President Donald J. Trump and his allies alienated many swing voters by trying to make fear of immigrants a central campaign issue. Republicans lost control of the House.
Inside the West Wing, aides to President Biden say they believe the ploy by the Republican governors has backfired. They say putting migrants on buses or planes, in some cases without telling them where they are headed, appears to voters as meanspirited and cruel. Mr. Biden on Thursday night accused the governors of “playing politics with human beings,” calling the busing “un-American” and “reckless.”
But the buses filled with migrants appear likely to continue arriving in Democratic cities, fueled by record levels of migrants who are streaming toward the United States from countries racked by political and economic instability. Many recent border-crossers are fleeing the political corruption, inflation and economic collapse in Venezuela.
A roaring labor market in the United States is helping to draw migrants north, along with the knowledge that Mr. Biden has relaxed some of the harshest restrictions that were put in place by Mr. Trump during his four years in office. The border is not “open,” as some Republicans insist; authorities have turned hundreds of thousands of migrants away using a pandemic-era rule known as Title 42.
But the Biden administration has allowed more than 1 million migrants entry into the country while their asylum cases are processed — a message that has reached throughout the southern hemisphere.
Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, lashed out at the Republican governors again on Friday, telling reporters that the state officials and their party’s lawmakers in Congress are blocking real solutions to the nation’s immigration problems.
“What have they done? They do these political stunts. They vote against our funding requests. They vote against policies to fix this broken system. Stunts aren’t solutions here,” she said. “All we’re seeing is from them are petty and dangerous stunts. This is dangerous. They’re putting children’s lives at risk.”
Ms. Jean-Pierre declined to say whether the administration was considering any legal action to stop future such efforts by the Republican governors.
Mr. DeSantis, Mr. Ducey and Mr. Abbott have been unapologetic about their headline-grabbing tactics, insisting that they are merely pointing out the hypocrisy of Democratic mayors who advocate compassion at the border but are geographically far from the surge of migrants and their impact on local areas.
On Friday morning, the migrants and the volunteers who had helped settle them into their stay on the island erupted into applause and group hugs as the migrants departed St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, Mass., where they had stayed the past two nights. All 48 migrants have left the island, officials said, but some have expressed interest in returning, and families on Martha’s Vineyard have volunteered to host.
Mr. DeSantis told reporters in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Friday that the migrants on the flights had to sign a release form and had been given an informational packet. “That packet included a map for Martha’s Vineyard,” he said, “so it’s obvious that’s where they were going.”
“It’s all voluntary,” Mr. DeSantis continued.
After the Florida Legislature set aside $12 million to transport unauthorized immigrants out of state, Mr. DeSantis said his administration had sent officials to Texas to identify migrants entering the country who are planning to go to Florida, and offer them free transportation to sanctuary jurisdictions instead.
“What we’re trying to do is profile, ‘OK, who do you think is trying to get to Florida?’” he said, adding: “If they end up coming to Florida, that’s going to impose a lot of costs on the community.”
He said his administration had hired a contractor. “There’s a bunch of stuff that goes into creating the infrastructure” to identify and transport the migrants, he said.
“There’s going to be buses and there’s likely going to be more flights,” he said.
By Friday afternoon, a Venezuelan migrant named Eliomar, 30, who had left his children in Falcón state in Venezuela, was on a ferry crossing the Vineyard Sound on his way to the military base.
“It’s beautiful,” he said, standing on the bow of the ferry.
Eliomar said he is a painter and wants to “work, to find a good job,” hopefully in Boston. “I don’t have any friends, but I know I can do it.”
“We don’t have family, we don’t have anything,” he said. “We came to find a better future.”
Remy Tumin reported from Edgartown and Michael D. Shear from Washington. Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting from Miami, Brooke Kushwaha from Edgartown and Zolan Kanno-Youngs from Washington.