Update: Dems push DOJ to probe DeSantis over migrants. But there’s no easy legal answer. 

When Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis transported migrants by plane to Martha’s Vineyard, he turned a political stunt into what could become a serious legal battle.
Immigrants gather with their belongings outside St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Wednesday Sept. 14, 2022, in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard. | Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette via AP Photo

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco on Friday, in an interview with Bloomberg, said the DOJ is reviewing “a number of inquiries and letters” it received about the GOP governors transporting migrants, including Newsom’s demand for an investigation. But even if the DOJ decides not to act, groups and legal experts say there are avenues to take legal action.

A core legal concern is whether migrants have given their consent to travel by plane to Massachusetts or bus to Illinois, New York or Washington, where migrants have also been transported.

If they’re being transported against their will, it calls into question the human trafficking statutes. So far, nothing indicates they’re being held captive. They’re not being handcuffed and put on buses. So it’s unlikely that federal criminal trafficking statutes will come into play,” said Steven Block, a Chicago attorney at Thompson Hine and former assistant U.S. attorney who handled trafficking and corruption cases. But if migrants are being coerced, “then it gets more nuanced,” he said in an interview. “If someone is told, ‘Hey, get on the bus. We’re going to Chicago because we have a job for you’ and it’s not true, that person has been victimized.” Nicole Hallett, a law professor at University of Chicago and director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, says as fraught as the situation has become, it’s not likely that cities or states will have grounds to sue Texas or any red state sending migrants to other cities. The Constitution says the federal government regulates interstate commerce and that states can’t restrict interstate commerce, “and that’s been held to include the movement of people across borders,” Hallett said in an interview.

“It’s a little bit of a red herring. People want to see this as a fight between the states because that’s how Abbott and DeSantis are setting it up,” she said. “But the real question is whether migrants have a claim against Texas or Florida. And that depends on the facts.”

The state budget DeSantis signed this year allocated $12 million to move “unauthorized aliens” but specified the intent was to transport people “from this state.” Asked about that provision, DeSantis dismissed it as semantic because so many migrants [from Texas] end up in Florida, but they are not moving there in groups large enough to intercept. 

“. … And the reality is 40% of them [immigrants] say they want to go to Florida. And so that’s a lot. I mean, we talk about all those people, but the problem is that they’re coming in through with like three people in a car and they go through, it’s hard for us to know, because they’re just coming into the state like any other car, so there’s not a big movement. So they’ve been in Texas, identifying people that are trying to come to Florida and then offering them free transportation to sanctuary jurisdictions. And so they went from Texas to Florida, to Martha’s Vineyard in the flight.” 

Responding to criticism on Thursday from President Joe Biden, DeSantis said, “We’re continuing to … use every tool at our disposal to insulate the state of Florida from the negative ramifications of his reckless border policies. He didn’t scramble to get his Cabinet together when we had millions of people illegally pouring across the southern border,” DeSantis said.

Politico and CNN

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