‘This was all a scam’: Migrants reveal DeSantis plans for Delaware flight

The governor’s operatives allegedly left asylum seekers stranded after false promises and a canceled flight

Alex Woodward
New York
Thursday 22 September 2022 18:43 BST
Sheriff says migrants were 'lured' onto flights to Massachusetts
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Louise Thomas

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Days after a group of migrants boarded planes chartered by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, a woman was recruiting other migrants to board another flight – this time from San Antonio to Delaware.

The flight ultimately never happened. State agencies, local aid groups and the White House had coordinated with officials at a coastal airport anticipating the arrival of another plane organised by Florida’s Republican governor.

But around the same time that Mr DeSantis defended his scheme on Fox News, arguing that migrants on the unannounced flights to the Massachusetts island had signed waivers to “voluntarily” board them, another group of migrants were filling out similar forms from their temporary hotel rooms, preparing for what would they were told was a flight to Delaware, where they would receive financial assistance and employment.

Instead, according to The Miami-Herald, the group was told early the next morning that the flight was canceled, stranding them at a hotel miles from a migrant shelter after making a dangerous journey through Central America and Mexico before arriving in San Antonio to seek asylum in the US.

They were not told why.

The group also did not know that an anonymous source close to Governor DeSantis would suggest to NBC News that the Delaware flight – apparently scheduled to arrive roughly 20 miles from President Joe Biden’s beach home – was used to “punk” media and Democratic officials in an effort to “put a spotlight on the border.”

After two nights in a church shelter, migrants who arrived in Massachusetts on 14 September were moved to a larger shelter operation on the mainland, with separate rooms and medical and legal support.

The flights’ arrival galvanised local aid groups and the state’s emergency response agencies in immediate action.

But people believed to be working for the governor and members of his administration targeted people seeking asylum in the US with false promises of job opportunities, education and financial assistance, according to a lawsuit against the DeSantis administration and interviews with migrants.

Migrants who spoke to the Miami-Herald claimed they were similarly targeted for what would be a second flight arranged by the DeSantis administration.

According to the newspaper, a women in a black SUV arranged for a group of migrants to stay at a La Quinta hotel, telling them that “what we do is provide transportation” to a state where they would receive additional support.

“Tonight, I think we find out where we are going,” she can be heard saying in a video reviewed by the newspaper. “Once there, we are taken to a place – rather, a community – of support and there they give you more guidance.”

They were allowed to stay in the hotel before the following morning’s flight, on the condition that they not discuss their travel plans or who arranged them, according to migrants who spoke to the Miami-Herald.

On the morning of 20 September, while the migrants waited for transportation to take them to their flight, they were told that the flight was canceled.

Pedro Escalona told the newspaper that the group was promised work, and that wherever they would arrive “there would be help.”

Mr Escalona said he fled Venezuela in the wake of that country’s political and economic collapse. His asylum hearing was scheduled to take place next month in Washington DC, and he hoped the flight would at least get him half of the way there, according to the newspaper.

After the flight was canceled, recruiters hired a bus to take the group back to the Migrant Resource Center in San Antonio, where officials in recent days have told migrants to avoid “rides or any other assistance from strangers” outside the centre.

The centre provides shelter and aid for up to three days.

But some of the migrants were not told about the bus back to the centre, according to the newspaper. They were stranded at the remote hotel roughly 10 miles away.

“This was all a scam,” Dairon Banachera recalled saying outside the bus, according to the Miami-Herald.

Florida records show that the state paid Vertol Systems Company Inc $950,000 on 19 September for “RELOCATION PROGRAM OF UNAUTHORIZED ALIENS”.

The state paid the aviation firm $615,000 on 8 September for the same reason.

In total, the company has received more than $1.56m from Governor DeSantis’s $12m state-funded plan to ship migrants to Democratic states and cities, widely derided as a political stunt to protest President Joe Biden and “sanctuary” designations that GOP officials attribute to a crisis at the US-Mexico border.

A lawsuit against the administration alleges that the governor and several unnamed defendants who allegedly convinced migrants to board the flights “manipulated them, stripped them of their dignity, deprived them of their liberty, bodily autonomy, due process and equal protection under the law.”

The sheriff of Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, also announced this week that his office is investigating the flights.

“What infuriates me the most about this case is that here we have 48 people who are already on hard times, they are here legally in the country at that point,” Sheriff Javier Salazar said during a press conference on 19 September.

“They have every right to be where they are, and I believe they were preyed upon – somebody came from out of state, preyed upon these people, lured them with promises of a better life, which is what they were absolutely looking for, with the knowledge that they were going to cling to whatever hope they could be offered ... to just be exploited and hoodwinked into making this trip,” he said.

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