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Texas sheriff opens criminal investigation into migrant flights to Martha's Vineyard

Sept. 20 (UPI) -- A Texas county sheriff said he has opened a criminal investigation into two flights that transported 48 documented migrants from a San Antonio immigration center to Massachusetts' Martha's Vineyard.

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar announced the opening of the investigation during a press conference Monday, stating he believes state and possibly parallel federal crimes were committed last week when the Venezuelan migrants were "lured" onto the planes chartered by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that flew them to the small Massachusetts island where they were left without assistance.

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Members of his organized crime unit have begun to investigate, he said, adding they have a handful of potential suspects, but the sheriff withheld their names, explaining "I think everybody on this call knowns who those names are already."

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On Wednesday, the migrants landed unannounced in Martha's Vineyard, a small island of some 15,000 permanent residents, sparking what local authorities described as a "humanitarian situation" as they scrambled to find shelter and assistance for the new arrivals.

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Lawyers representing the migrants have said their clients were induced to board the planes under false pretenses, stating the migrants were promised work opportunities, schooling for their children and immigration assistance. The lawyers also said their clients were told they were going to Boston and were only informed that Martha's Vineyard was their final destination mid-flight.

The move by DeSantis and those by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has sent thousands of migrants this summer to northern districts such as Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., come in criticism to President Joe Biden's immigration policy.

DeSantis has said the flights were planned under his so-called immigration relocation program for which he has $12 million at his disposal to "insulate" Florida from the impacts of the federal government's immigration policy.

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He said the migrants were identified in San Antonio as wanting to go to Florida and were offered free transportation to "sanctuary jurisdictions" instead.

The move has come under staunch criticism from human and civil rights advocates as well as Democrats who have accused DeSantis, a potential Republican presidential candidate, of using human lives for a political stunt in an attempt to make a point about President Joe Biden's immigration policy.

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There has also been mounting calls for local and federal authorities to investigate the chartered flights for potential crimes.

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Salazar said Monday that the migrants were lured outside of a San Antonio migrant resource center by a fellow Venezuelan migrant, who was paid what he called a "bird-dog fee" for the service.

The migrants, who were in the United States legally, were lured, misled, "exploited and hoodwinked into boarding the planes by promises of a better life for nothing more than "political posturing," he said.

"Somebody came from out of state, preyed upon these people, lured them with promises of a better life, which is absolutely what they were looking for, with the knowledge that they were going to cling to whatever hope they could," he said.

Asked if politics had anything to do with opening the investigation, Salazar responded that if rights of those in the United States were violated those responsible should be prosecuted no matter what their political affiliation is.

"The allegations that we've heard is absolutely distasteful, it's disgusting, it's an abuse of human rights but I would like to find out sooner rather than later what charges if any are going to apply and to whom," he said.

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He added that he has not been in touch with the White House but that he'd be open to hearing from them as coordination will be necessary as there is a "high possibility" federal crimes were committed.

Salazar repeatedly said during the press conference that the migrants were legally allowed to be in the United States and that they had most probably gone through great hardships to be here.

"They had a right to walk around the streets just like you or me. And they had a right to not be preyed upon and played for a fool and transported halfway across the country just for the sake of a media event, a video opportunity," he said.

"That's a tragedy at the very least. At worst, it's probably some sort of a crime."

UPI has contacted DeSantis' office for comment.

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