Border shelters warn migrants about human trafficking after DeSantis flights to Martha’s Vineyard

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  • Some border shelters in Texas have added language to their orientation advising asylum seekers not to take free plane rides from strangers.
  • Some migrants have been told how to contact the National Human Trafficking hotline.
  • “It’s very sad that people try to manipulate [migrants]. It’s abusive,” said Valeria Wheeler, executive director of the Mission: Border Hope shelter in Eagle Pass, Texas. “That’s something that cannot occur again.”

LAREDO, Texas – Yetsimar Landeata spent 30 days walking through jungle and across seven countries with her two young children, ages 6 and 11, to reach the U.S.-Mexico border and seek asylum.

When she learned that some of her fellow Venezuelans had been flown from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard last week under questionable circumstances by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, she was stunned.

“Imagine if that happened to me,” Landeata, 29, of Caracas, said Tuesday from a migrant shelter in Laredo. “If I were by myself, I don’t care where I end up. But with two children, just dumping us there? It’s dangerous.”

Across the Texas border this week, shelter directors and migrants denounced last week’s controversial chartered plane trips of around 50 mostly Venezuelan migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard and vowed to prevent any more from reoccurring.

Some shelters added language to their orientation advising asylum seekers not to take free plane rides from strangers. Others made sure migrants leaving their shelters secured travel arrangements before setting off. 

Workers at San Antonio’s Migrant Resource Center, where the migrants flown to Massachusetts last were, are now advising migrants not to accept rides or any other assistance from strangers outside the center and to report any suspicious activity to the staff, according to a city spokesperson. Signs are also posted at the center providing the National Human Trafficking hotline.

“It’s very sad that people try to manipulate [migrants]. It’s abusive,” said Valeria Wheeler, executive director of the Mission: Border Hope shelter in Eagle Pass, Texas. “That’s something that cannot occur again.”

The Martha’s Vineyard plane trips have sparked national controversy and legal action. On Tuesday, Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights and Alianza Americas, a Chicago advocacy group, filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of several migrants against DeSantis and others, seeking a nationwide injunction to block the Florida governor from engaging in future activities. 

DeSantis has said the migrants were notified of where they were going and agreed to the flights. He told reporters last week that he plans to spend “every penny” of a $12 million fund set aside by Florida lawmakers to seek out migrants planning to travel to Florida and divert them elsewhere.

“There’s also going to be buses, and there will likely be more flights,” he said.

DeSantis’ efforts to redirect migrants from Texas join initiatives by the governors of Texas and Arizona that offer free bus rides to migrants away from their states. Governors of those states have said the bus rides to liberal “sanctuary cities” friendly to migrants are a statement on President Joe Biden’s border policies. 


Busloads of migrants are dropped off at VP Kamala Harris’ D.C. home

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent two buses of Central and South American asylum seekers to Vice President Kamala Harris’s D.C. residence.

Anthony Jackson, USA TODAY

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has directed officials to help bus more than 11,000 migrants from Texas to New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., over the past few months. Dozens of those migrants have been dropped off in front of the U.S. Naval Observatory, where Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff live. 

Border shelters in Texas are split over accepting the state-sponsored bus rides. Some, like the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, have refused the bus rides because officials there wish to shield migrants from what they call political maneuvers by officials.

The majority of migrants showing up at Texas shelters crossed into the United States between ports of entry and turned themselves into U.S. Border Patrol. They were processed by Border Patrol and released into the United States to await an immigration hearing. 

“It’s wrong to use people and family for political schemes,” said Sister Norma Pimentel, the center’s director. “We can’t just move people around without considering the fact they’re human beings.”

Others accept the bus rides to help move migrants to their final destinations, as record-number of migrants arrive at their shelters.

Michael Smith, who runs the Holding Institute community center in Laredo, acknowledges that the bus rides are politically driven. He uses them only if he knows the migrants in his care are headed to that destination and have the city written on their immigration papers, he said. He’s only requested one state-run bus ride, which earlier this month saw 41 mostly-Venezuelan migrants board a charter bus to New York City.

He condemned efforts to deceive migrants and has warned asylum seekers at his shelter not to accept free rides from strangers. He said he receives about 300 to 500 migrants a day, about 80% of which are Venezuelans and have Florida listed as a final destination.

“When I heard the news, I thought it was a joke,” Smith said of the Martha’s Vineyard flights. “I thought it wasn’t real.”

Jose Guzman, 47, of Aragua, Venezuela, was at the Laredo shelter and trying to get enough money to get to Vero Beach, Florida, where relatives await him. He said he learned of Abbott’s bus rides and the flights to Martha’s Vineyard only after arriving at the shelter and was disturbed by the news.

“The [governor] from Florida wants to follow in the footsteps of the one here,” Guzman said. “They’re trying to make life miserable for Venezuelans.”

Ruben Garcia, executive director of the El Paso-based Annunciation House, said Texas officials weren’t offering bus rides when a 2019 immigration surge sent thousands of migrants to his shelter, overflowing his capacity.

El Paso initially took part in the busing program but dropped out after it drew backlash from the community. Instead, the city has spent more than $1 million since July on its own charter buses for migrants. Unlike Abbott’s program, city officials coordinate directly with officials in destination cities. 

“I am an advocate for involving the interior of the United States in reception of the refugees,” Garcia said. “What I am totally opposed to is that we politicize this. That is what is being done and that is what is so abhorrent.”

Wheeler, who runs the Eagle Pass shelter, said she was surprised and saddened to hear that the migrants who were flown from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard entered the United States at Eagle Pass and likely spent time at her shelter. She said there is a difference between the bus rides offered by Abbott and what appears to be deceptive tactics from people working on behalf of DeSantis.

Her center receives between 500 and 1,000 migrants a day – a sharp jump from around 20 a week they were receiving in 2020, she said. Around 60% of the migrants are Venezuelans. Most of those are trying to reach Florida, she said.

Wheeler said she accepts one or two Texas-funded bus rides a day but makes sure everyone getting on a bus wants to reach the agreed-upon destination. Others take a local charter bus to San Antonio, where they transfer to bus or airline flights to their final cities.  

To be safe, she’s added a few lines to the usual migrant orientation, explaining the recent political dustup and warning migrants of people offering free flights.

“It’s very sad and very traumatic for them to be in this situation,” Wheeler said. “Someone taking advantage of their vulnerability and lying to them … I can’t imagine. It’s horrible.”

Contributing: Lauren Villagran, El Paso Times

Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.