In a surprising twist, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' move last month to fly dozens of migrants to Martha's Vineyard may end up putting those migrants on a pathway to obtaining a special visa—and potentially lawful permanent residence in the United States.
Legal questions quickly arose after DeSantis used state funds to transport nearly 50 migrants from San Antonio, Texas, to the island of Martha's Vineyard in September. Several of those migrants filed a lawsuit against DeSantis soon after the flights, alleging that Florida officials "made false promises and false representations" in order to entice them to board the planes.
The sheriff's office in Bexar County, where San Antonio is located, also announced that it would investigate whether the migrants were duped. "They feel like that was done through deceptive means," Sheriff Javier Salazar said. "That could be a crime here in Texas and we will handle it as such."
Yesterday, Salazar certified that the migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard were the victims of a crime. "Based upon the claims of migrants being transported from Bexar County under false pretenses, we are investigating this case as possible Unlawful Restraint," Salazar said in a statement to GBH News. Under the Texas penal code, unlawful restraint, or restricting someone's movement without consent, includes actions that involve "force, intimidation, or deception." Salazar noted that his office had "submitted documentation through the federal system to ensure the migrants' availability as witnesses during the investigation."
The sheriff's certification move is notable because it clears the way for the migrants to apply for a U visa, which is devoted to victims or witnesses of crimes, through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). "Once certified, the crime victim can apply to USCIS for a U visa, which, if approved, allows them to remain in the US in nonimmigrant status and eventually can lead to Lawful Permanent Residence," said immigration attorney Rachel Self, who has been assisting the migrants legally.
But backlogs spell a lengthy process for migrants who hope to obtain U visas. There were over 285,000 U visa petitions pending as of FY 2021, per USCIS data. According to a March report by the Niskanen Center, it would take more than 17 years for the government to process all U visa applications at its current pace. What's more, Congress caps the number of visas at 10,000 annually. But as Politico notes:
Once the Venezuelans submit their applications, they will likely be allowed to work and protected from deportation. Last year, the federal appellate court that covers Massachusetts ruled that a Honduran man could not be removed from the country while his U visa application was pending.
"Ironically by choosing to transport the migrants to Martha's Vineyard…all of these victims are now protected from removal while their U visa application is pending due to the Granados Benitez case," Self wrote in her statement.
This development in DeSantis' Martha's Vineyard stunt speaks to how counterproductive showy immigration enforcement schemes can be. Often done in the name of fiscal responsibility, moves in Texas and Florida have racked up massive bills at taxpayers' expense. The Martha's Vineyard flights have also landed DeSantis in the Treasury Department inspector general's crosshairs: The governor is now under investigation for potential misuse of federal COVID-19 funds to cover the flights.
Judging by his actions, DeSantis is no champion of immigrants. But because of how the migrant flights have backfired, he could prove to be an inadvertent helper to some.