Attorney discusses migrants’ lawsuit against Florida Gov. DeSantis

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is facing a class action lawsuit for flying roughly 50 migrants unannounced from Texas to Martha's Vineyard, without food, shelter or resources planned. The suit says that DeSantis and other individuals defrauded vulnerable immigrants to advance a political agenda. Oren Sellstrom, one of the attorneys involved in the lawsuit, joins Geoff Bennett to discuss.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    The political fight over the migrants sent to Martha's Vineyard last week on flights arranged by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, is now illegal one, two. DeSantis has been slapped with a class action lawsuit for flying roughly 50 people from Texas to Martha's Vineyard without food, shelter or resources planned. The migrants' arrival to the island was unannounced, and the suit says that DeSantis and other individuals defrauded vulnerable immigrants to advance a political agenda. The nonprofit group, Lawyers for Civil Rights which represents more than 30 of the migrants alleges in the lawsuit that Governor DeSantis lured the migrants under false pretenses. Oren Sellstrom is one of the attorneys involved in the lawsuit and he joins us now.

    Thanks for being with us. How did your organization come to represent these migrants? And where did the idea for this class action lawsuit originate?

    Oren Sellstrom, Lawyers for Civil Rights: Well, we began receiving calls about the situation within hours of the planes touching down on Martha's Vineyard. People on the island, in the community recognized that the people who had just landed were going to need a lot of assistance, certainly some of the necessities like food and shelter, but that there were also serious legal implications. And so, at Lawyers for Civil Rights, we were on the ground in Martha's Vineyard the next morning, and really worked around the clock since then, to make sure and protect our clients' legal rights. That started with making sure that their individual immigration cases, we're not prejudiced by this stunt that had been pulled by Governor DeSantis. But at the same time, we recognize that there were significant civil rights implications, and that our clients' civil rights had been violated, and that there needed to be a lawsuit brought to remedy that.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And looking at the filing, the suit alleges that several dozen migrants were gathered by a woman. And this is a quote, "to sign a document in order to receive a $10 McDonald's gift card," and that this woman didn't explain what the document stated. And that the document wasn't completely translated into Spanish. Tell us more about that, and give us a sense of what these migrants were promised before they got on the plane?

  • Oren Sellstrom:

    It was really insidious, the way that Governor DeSantis is accomplices on the ground in Texas, worked to gain our clients trust and then to induce them into this flight. You have to remember that this is a very vulnerable group of individuals already, who had fled violence in their home country who had most of them traveled largely by foot across Central America and Mexico to reach our borders, really saw the United States as a place of refuge and came and presented themselves to federal immigration authorities were released. And it was then that these folks that were working with Governor DeSantis started really preying on that vulnerability.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    A Texas sheriff, as you will know, has launched a criminal investigation into these Martha's Vineyard flights. Your work, of course focuses on the civil side. You mentioned earlier that they're that their rights were violated that there are civil rights violations, detail when you consider those to be?

  • Oren Sellstrom:

    Our federal Constitution protects against illegal seizure, against deprivation of liberty. It guarantees due process and equal protection. We believe all of those rights were violated by this fraudulent inducement. It's also a case of a state interfering in federal immigration authority. And so, we have claims based on that as well. But really, it all boils down to this idea that there was fraud and deceit that our clients were promised jobs, they were promised educational opportunities for their children would be waiting for them at their destination. And it was all deceit and trickery.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Governor Ron DeSantis makes the case, he makes the political argument that these so-called sanctuary jurisdictions, these sanctuary cities are only feeling a small fraction of what border towns deal with every day as a result of illegal immigration. Take a listen to what he said in a press conference earlier this past week.

  • Gov.┬áRon DeSantis, Florida:

    They don't want to have to pay any type of cost on this. And don't forget, this is an island that advertised to be sanctuary. And they said they didn't have the resources to keep — to take 50. Well, just imagine how all these other places across our country are having to be duped.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    So, what do you make of that argument?

  • Oren Sellstrom:

    First of all, the idea that this is a conversation that can be started by this kind of political stunt that treats individuals as objects as political props, is wrong. If we're going to have this conversation about immigration, and immigration reform in this country, it has to start from a place of humanity, of recognizing that people are people and that they're — the lived experiences of our clients have to be front and center. But in terms of the actual reception, to the migrants, when they arrived on Martha's Vineyard, there was an outpouring of support from the island community and from the commonwealth of Massachusetts in general. We hear in this state value people and treat them with the dignity and respect that they deserve.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    What are you hoping to achieve with this lawsuit?

  • Oren Sellstrom:

    We want to hold the perpetrators of this stunt accountable. But mostly what our clients told us is, we don't want this to happen again to anyone else. They tell us about the feeling of abandonment that they felt when they realized when they stepped off the plane that everything that had been promised to them was a lie essentially that feeling of abandonment, that feeling of despair they've told us over and over again, we don't want anyone else to have to go through that. And that is the prime purpose of the lawsuit.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Oren Sellstrom is an attorney with a nonprofit group, Lawyers for Civil Rights, thanks so much for being with us.

  • Oren Sellstrom:

    Thank you for having me.

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