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Lawyer, sheriff help Martha’s Vineyard migrants get a ‘bit of justice’

Jan. 20, 2023 Updated Fri., Jan. 20, 2023 at 6:33 p.m.

A Venezuelan migrant is led onto a bus at St. Andrews Episcopal Church on Sept. 16 in Edgartown, Mass., on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.  (MATIAS J. OCNER)
A Venezuelan migrant is led onto a bus at St. Andrews Episcopal Church on Sept. 16 in Edgartown, Mass., on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. (MATIAS J. OCNER)
By Joanna Slater Washington Post

STOUGHTON, Mass. – After Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) flew dozens of migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, immigration lawyer Rachel Self rushed to the church where the group was staying. Soon she was inundated with phone calls.

The owner of a local seafood company offered to employ the new arrivals. Reporters left dozens of messages. Anonymous callers threatened violence. As quickly as she emptied her voice mail, Self said, it filled up again. Offers of help, reporters, threats.

One caller stood out: a man who introduced himself as Javier Salazar, the sheriff of Bexar County in Texas. He said he understood she had ties to the migrants. He wanted to explore whether the way they had been recruited onto the planes made them victims of a crime.

Self was intrigued but suspicious: After they spoke for the first time, she asked the sheriff to email her to make sure that he was who he said he was. He did, copying senior members of his staff, including the chief of his organized crime unit.

In the ensuing weeks, the sheriff in San Antonio and the lawyer from Martha’s Vineyard would forge an unusual partnership as Salazar launched an investigation and gathered evidence from the migrants. Their work produced an unexpected outcome to the migrants’ long journeys. The group of 49 people, nearly all from Venezuela, became eligible for a type of visa available only to victims of crimes who are assisting in law enforcement investigations, a process that also shields them from deportation.

The individuals who orchestrated the flights sought to “demean these people and make them a public spectacle,” Salazar, 52, said. “And I find it ironic that all they did was enable these people to now stay in the country.”

Salazar and Self made an improbable pair. Salazar grew up in Universal City, a northern suburb of San Antonio, and spent more than two decades in the San Antonio Police Department, where he worked in narcotics and internal affairs, eventually heading the public integrity unit. In 2016, he was elected sheriff of Bexar County, which has a population of 2 million.

Self, 45, was born in New York and had a brief career in acting before becoming a lawyer. She runs a private practice handling criminal defense and immigration cases from an office in downtown Boston, but lives on Chappaquiddick Island at the eastern edge of Martha’s Vineyard.

For months, Salazar, a Democrat, had watched as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) bused migrants to cities such as New York and Washington. While Salazar said he finds the policy “objectionable,” he doesn’t see anything illegal about it, because there weren’t signs the migrants were deceived.

The case of the migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard by DeSantis was different, he said. The DeSantis administration used operatives in Texas to recruit the group with false promises of jobs and housing, according to lawyers representing the migrants. It chartered two private planes that departed from San Antonio and stopped in Florida before landing in Martha’s Vineyard, a vacation destination that has a year-round population of 20,000. Authorities in Massachusetts had no idea the group was coming.

Salazar noted that the migrants were in the country legally pending immigration proceedings. If they had been recruited onto the planes with false promises, that deception could be criminal. He said the migrants had “already been taken advantage of” on their journeys by smugglers and cartels, and “now a government official is launching a million-dollar operation to come hunt them down and lie to them?” Salazar said. “No. Not in my county.”

In September, DeSantis – a potential 2024 presidential candidate – appeared on Fox News and said the migrants had signed consent forms and their decision to go was “clearly voluntary.” Months earlier, DeSantis had foreshadowed his plan. He told reporters that if migrants were sent to Martha’s Vineyard or to President Biden’s home state of Delaware, the border “would be secure the next day.”

To determine what exactly happened to the migrants, Salazar needed his investigators to interview them. That’s when he called Self.

The day after the migrants arrived, the lawyer stood outside the small Episcopal church where they were staying and addressed reporters. To the people who had found themselves “plane-wrecked” in her community, Self offered solidarity. “We’ve got you. We’ve got your back,” she said.

At the time, Self was reeling from the loss of her brother, who had died of complications from COVID the month before. Without realizing it, she was echoing some of the same phrases that she had used to reassure him while he was in the hospital.

Self, who has appeared as a legal analyst on Fox News, had prior experience in the media glare. But she had never received such specific threats to her safety that she felt compelled to report them to the police. Her partner, Billy Gazaille, began accompanying her everywhere and carrying a gun in their truck.

After Self and Salazar’s initial conversation, the sheriff followed up with an email copying his senior staff. Self and other lawyers working with the migrants – Susan Church, Julio Henríquez, Emily Leung and Adriana Lafaille – arranged for the adults to be interviewed via video by members of the sheriff’s organized crime unit. The interviews took place in three rooms over two days at Joint Base Cape Cod, where the migrants were housed after leaving Martha’s Vineyard.

Salazar is investigating whether the people who carried out the plan in Texas broke a law that makes it illegal to restrict someone’s movements without their consent whether by force or deception, an offense called “unlawful restraint.”

At the same time, the Treasury Department is examining whether Florida misused federal funds in paying for the flights. Lawyers for Civil Rights, an organization in Boston, also launched a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of the migrants. The defendants in the complaint include DeSantis, three Florida officials and Perla Huerta, identified as the lead recruiter.

DeSantis’s office referred the Washington Post to a statement made by spokeswoman Taryn Fenske when Salazar first opened his investigation. “Immigrants have been more than willing to leave Bexar County after being abandoned,” Fenske said in September. Florida gave the migrants flown to Massachusetts “an opportunity to seek greener pastures in a sanctuary jurisdiction.”

Salazar said his investigation is not rooted in politics. “This is not about a Democrat sheriff and a Republican governor,” he said. It’s about whether there were “people physically in my county that broke the law and what I’m going to do about that.”

So far, no charges have been filed in the Bexar County investigation. The probe is ongoing, Salazar said, and investigators have identified people they consider suspects. He declined to say anything about Huerta, who allegedly recruited the migrants. Attempts to reach Huerta were unsuccessful, and there is no lawyer on record representing her in the federal lawsuit.

The migrants’ cooperation in the Bexar County investigation made them candidates for what is known as a “U visa,” a category established in 2000 and available to victims of crimes to enable them to provide information to authorities about illegal activity. To apply for the visa, a petitioner first needs a certification from a law-enforcement official. Each year, 10,000 such visas are issued to primary applicants.

Salazar signed each of the certifications, something he had never done before in his time as sheriff.

Typically, he said, that job would fall to a supervisor below him on the organizational chart. But because of the negative attention generated by the case, Salazar decided to do it himself.

In mid-October, Self flew from Boston to San Antonio, unwilling to entrust the U visa certifications to a courier. She sat in a conference room with Salazar’s team, where they checked and rechecked the documents for each of the migrants for accuracy. She brought them home to Massachusetts in her carry-on bag.

Before Self left, Salazar presented her with a token of appreciation: a small medallion known as a “challenge coin” given out by military units and police departments.

When Self returned to Massachusetts, she distributed the U visa certification documents to the group of about a dozen lawyers who are representing the migrants pro bono in their immigration proceedings. Now they have the choice of applying for a U visa, or applying for asylum, or doing both. In either case, it could take up to a year or more to receive work authorization.

Self sees the U visa option as a fitting consequence of DeSantis’s plan. “By actually doing something truly awful, it provided a pathway for these individuals that didn’t exist before,” she said. “Which, in my mind, gives them a little bit of justice.”

A recent ruling by a federal appeals court in Massachusetts set a precedent that makes it very difficult to deport someone whose U visa is being processed, Self said.

At Thanksgiving, four of the Venezuelans joined Self and her extended family at a long table for a traditional turkey dinner. Self said she and her conservative-leaning father had spent years “agreeing to disagree” on immigration. But it took only an evening with the new arrivals to shift her father’s attitude, she said. After hearing their stories, he immediately wanted to help them, rather than seeing them as part of a problem.

She’s proud of the way her small community rallied to welcome the 49 migrants who ranged in age from 2 to 68. After two nights on the island, they were shifted to the mainland, where there were appropriate resources to shelter them.

Four months later, nearly everyone in the group is still in Massachusetts. Many are in small cities near Boston, and others remain on Cape Cod. Five have returned to Martha’s Vineyard with the help of residents.

Last month, Self and Gazaille visited several of the migrants in Stoughton, a town south of Boston. They carried bags of warm clothing donated by their neighbors on Chappaquiddick: wool sweaters, puffy jackets, winter hats. A 27-year-old with dark, curly hair tried on a hunting jacket and a cream-colored fisherman’s sweater. “Thank you, this is very kind,” he told Self.

Local organizations working with the homeless had helped locate housing for the migrants. They contacted church groups, which found families willing to host some of the migrants for several months, while others are being housed in shelters.

Even as the migrants begin to build new lives – enrolling children in school, experiencing their first snowfall – the aftereffects of the flights continue, said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights. Many worry that they “could be penalized in some way” for their run-in with DeSantis, he said.

In December, the migrants gathered for a holiday party organized by the local Venezuelan community. There were music and traditional Christmas dishes, such as chicken salad and hallacas, a type of tamale.

Mostly, there is waiting. They’re unable to work legally, though some have tried to find jobs. The group at a shelter south of Boston is taking English classes at a local library. They received gift cards for groceries from a church and rely on food pantries. Their case manager is trying to get them bus passes; sometimes she offers them lifts in her car, where they introduce her to their favorite reggaeton songs.

In his room on the second floor, the 27-year-old has a single bed, a television and a small refrigerator. He is from the northern part of Venezuela, and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his ongoing immigration proceedings. “My life is what you see,” he said, gesturing at the room. He misses his wife and two children, and they in turn worry about him.

The attention garnered by their group was “very surprising,” he said. He boarded the plane in Texas because he had been promised help sorting out his immigration status along with shelter and work, he said. The experience of being deceived, he said, makes it “hard to trust people now.”

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