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Gov. DeSantis is facing a lawsuit from the migrants he sent to Martha's Vineyard

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The political battle over the migrants brought to Martha's Vineyard last week on flights arranged by Governor Ron DeSantis is now becoming a legal one as well.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah. This is a federal class action lawsuit filed on behalf of the mostly Venezuelan migrants. They say they were tricked into boarding planes from Texas to the small Massachusetts island. We've heard this story laid out by law enforcement. A Texas sheriff has opened a criminal investigation saying that people who had, quote, fallen "on hard times" and were "here legally," he said, were preyed upon for a video op.

MARTINEZ: NPR correspondent Tovia Smith has been following the story. Tovia, so, OK, a civil suit - what is the case being made here?

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: So the claim is basically that these migrants were lied to, that they were duped into taking these flights to Martha's Vineyard. They say they were told they were going to Boston or another big city. So the lawsuit accuses DeSantis and his, quote, "accomplices" of a "premeditated political stunt," basically playing these migrants - for example, buying them shoes and food and promising them jobs and housing and immigration help. But when the migrants landed, they say there was no one there. And as one attorney put it, they were terrified. And this was after they'd already been traumatized by their journey from Venezuela to seek asylum here, as I heard from one man who didn't want his name used for fear of retaliation.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

SMITH: He says, "you risk your life to cross that jungle, and you get here, and people like this come to scam you, to play with your life, with your dreams, with your desire to help your relatives." And this man says, "my world fell apart." I should say that the migrants ultimately did get help from island residents. And they now moved off island, most to a shelter on Cape Cod, where they're getting services and where they're also starting to share in about $300,000 in donations.

MARTINEZ: Tovia, when it comes to damages, what kind of damages is the lawsuit seeking?

SMITH: The suit doesn't specify a number, but it seeks compensation for emotional distress and also punitive damages. One of the plaintiffs is an immigrant advocacy group called Alianza Americas, and the group's head, Oscar Chacon, explained it like this.

OSCAR CHACON: First and foremost, we want these actions to stop. And sadly, our system is built in such a way in which unless you hit people's pockets, they tend to continue to misbehave.

MARTINEZ: What has Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said about this?

SMITH: He continues to defend the move. He says he gave migrants, quote, more "resources" and "greener pastures."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: They were provided an ability to be in the most posh sanctuary jurisdiction maybe in the world. And if you believe in open borders, then it's the sanctuary jurisdictions that should have to bear the brunt of the open borders. So that's what we're doing.

SMITH: DeSantis' office addressed the lawsuit specifically last night, shooting back at those accusing him of a political stunt by calling their lawsuit political theater. DeSantis, who is seen as a frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, insists that all migrants boarded the plane voluntarily, and his office attached a copy of a consent form they signed. But they made no mention of the claims that the migrants' consent was based on bogus promises. And I'll just add here, this is unlikely to be the end of this legal battle. As you mentioned, a criminal investigation is underway in Texas, and lawyers here in Massachusetts are also trying to build a case for state and federal charges, which could range from kidnapping to civil rights violations. And law enforcement officials here say they are evaluating their options.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Tovia Smith. Tovia, thanks.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.