The Bexar County, Texas, criminal investigation of the scheme to transport Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard continued to gain momentum with Monday’s revelation of the identity of one of the alleged ringleaders. Another one is already well-known: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has taken credit for this stunt. While the investigation is just beginning, what has already been revealed publicly appears to be potentially damaging both to DeSantis and his alleged accomplices.
DeSantis’ on-the-ground recruiters in Texas may face the most serious liability. These recruiters referred to themselves as “Perla” and “Emanuel” to the migrants, although “Emanuel” recently told CNN that he was unaware of the deception or the broader political context. CNN has now identified “Perla” as a former U.S. Army counterinelligence agent. The recruiters frequented areas near a migrant resource center in San Antonio and offered migrants gift certificates and other items to gain their trust, and lured them onto planes by allegedly making false promises about assistance and job opportunities.
The recruiters also reportedly misled the migrants about their destination, presenting them with a document written in English that, in an untranslated section, indicated that they would be transported to Massachusetts. The recruiters also appear to have provided the migrants with false information as to which authority they needed to notify of their address change. It was only after the planes took off that the migrants were told that they would be landing at Martha’s Vineyard, contrary to representations made prior to boarding.
These facts raise serious legal questions for the perpetrators under Texas criminal law. Though this isn’t the typical case for an unlawful restraint charge, the plain language of the Texas statute appears to fits the conduct as we understand it. The statute makes it an offense to “intentionally or knowingly restrain another person.” Under state law, restraint must be without consent, but lack of consent includes “force, intimidation, or deception.” The perpetrators may well have used deception to move the migrants, who likely would not have boarded the flights if they understood the truth. This fact pattern appears consistent with Texas’ definition of unlawful restraint.
The conduct also raises questions under Texas’ fraudulent securing of document execution statute. Prior to boarding the planes, the migrants signed documents that supposedly contained the details of the transportation. Their signatures were allegedly secured by deception, and thus without consent, which is a key component of this statute. The migrants were not accurately told where they were going, and important parts of the document they signed weren’t translated into Spanish. Additionally, the migrants were falsely told they would receive help with jobs, food, and housing.
Fraudulent securing of document execution would also require intention to harm or defraud, in addition to lack of consent. Investigators would need to demonstrate that the intention of the perpetrators in securing the signatures—to get the migrants to travel to Martha’s Vineyard—would harm or defraud the migrants.
Furthermore, the law governing fraudulent securing of document execution in Texas requires that signing the document would harm the “property or service or pecuniary interest of any person.” As this transport took migrants away from San Antonio, a potential job hub, there is an argument that it affected the financial status and job prospects of the migrants. If all three of these conditions are met, the perpetrators could be vulnerable to charges under this statute.
Fraudulent use or possession of identifying information is also a crime in Texas, and the perpetrators collected immigration notices and other paperwork from the migrants, which presumably contained identifying information. Here, a criminal investigation would look at whether the perpetrators might have deceived the migrants about why they were collecting these papers. If the perpetrators used the papers for a different purpose, that might constitute lack of effective consent. Additionally, state law assumes intent to harm or defraud if the perpetrators collect identifying information from three or more persons, with exceptions for legal, commercial, or government activity.
If Bexar County authorities should determine that there are facts to ground bringing charges against “Perla” or “Emanuel” under at least one of the statutes above, other persons may be liable under Texas’ conspiracy or aiding-and-abetting statutes, even if they are not found to be liable as primary actors. Depending on the development of the facts, that could include DeSantis and the secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation, Jared W. Perdue, although DeSantis claims that each migrant went to Martha’s Vineyard voluntarily. In addition to acts committed within the state, Texas’ territorial jurisdiction can include acts committed outside the state that constitute “conspiracy to commit an offense” within Texas. And as “Emanuel” claims he was himself deceived, Texas law enforcement can be expected to investigate the ties between these recruiters and Florida officials.
Under Texas’ criminal conspiracy statute, it is a crime to “agree with one or more persons … [to] engage in conduct that would constitute [an] offense” and then “perform an overt act in pursuance of the agreement.” DeSantis and other Florida officials face possible liability under this law if they agreed in some way with the perpetrators (or any other actors) that they would engage in committing a felony. We already know that DeSantis apparently arranged for the flights, which his office confirmed were “part of the state’s relocation program to transport illegal immigrants to sanctuary destinations.”
Additionally, we know that DeSantis has referred to those who gave the release forms to the migrants as “contracted” people, presumably referring to employees under contract. While it is unknown whether any of this documentation referred expressly to criminal conduct, reviewing the documentation could demonstrate an agreement between DeSantis and the perpetrators to engage in the conduct amounting to one or more of the offenses. Moreover, an express agreement is not required. Through all this, the perpetrators in Texas could infer agreement from DeSantis, which is a key component of criminal conspiracy.
Another condition of criminal conspiracy requires that at least one individual must perform an “overt act” to attempt to fulfill the agreement. This could include recruiting the migrants, placing them in hotels, getting their signatures, and transporting them to the airfield and on the plane. If both the agreement section and “overt act” section of the statute are satisfied, investigators could establish a criminal conspiracy offense.
Additionally, DeSantis may be criminally responsible for the perpetrators’ actions if the evidence demonstrates that he was “party” to an offense, even if he wasn’t the “principal actor.” Texas’ law imposes criminal responsibility on a person for an offense committed by the conduct of another,” if the first person aids or encourages the other with intent to promote the offense. On the basis of DeSantis’ public admissions, taking credit for flying the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, it may be the case that he directed the relocation program to take place. If investigators establish that DeSantis intended to “promote or assist” one of the perpetrators’ potential offenses when he gave the order (if any), he may be party to the actions of the perpetrators as a criminal law matter. Similarly, other Florida officials involved in appropriating the effort may be liable, if these officials were shown to have intended to “promote or assist” these potential offenses.
The nation seeks justice for the migrants who were moved to Martha’s Vineyard. The foregoing allegations deserve close attention by Texas investigators, and our analysis should help law enforcement to review this case. We don’t yet know if these proceedings will result in charges, and we don’t know of any determinations that Texas criminal law has been violated. This is one of many crucial arenas in this fight for accountability for migrant rights.