Judge allows migrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard by DeSantis to sue plane firm

<span>Venezuelan migrants stand outside St Andrew's Church in Edgartown, Massachusetts, on 14 September 2022.</span><span>Photograph: Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette/Reuters</span>
Venezuelan migrants stand outside St Andrew's Church in Edgartown, Massachusetts, on 14 September 2022.Photograph: Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette/Reuters

A group of migrants who were sent to Martha’s Vineyard in 2022 by Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, can sue the plane company that transported them, a federal judge has ruled.

In a ruling issued last Friday, the US district judge Allison Burroughs said that the migrants who were shuttled from Texas to the wealthy liberal island in Massachusetts can proceed with their legal claims against Vertol Systems, the plane company which was contracted by Florida to carry out the flights.

The 77-page ruling, which also named DeSantis, Florida’s transportation secretary, Jared Perdue, and other state officials as defendants, said that the Venezuelan migrants and the immigrant rights group Alianza Americas “sufficiently alleged” multiple claims including “civil rights conspiracy” and “civil conspiracy”.

The incident, which occurred in September 2022, involved planes carrying about 50 adults and children as part of DeSantis’s “relocation program to transport illegal immigrants to sanctuary destinations”. According to budget records reviewed by CNN, Florida paid more than $2.3m to Vertol Systems since 2022 as part of the state’s migrant relocation programs.

In response, immigration activists and Democratic politicians accused DeSantis, who ran then later suspended his 2024 presidential bid, of orchestrating a political stunt. Joe Biden condemned the governor’s actions, calling them “reckless”, “un-American” and “playing with people’s lives”.

In the ruling, Burroughs said: “Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that they were restrained against their will … (‘By the time Plaintiffs learned that they were being taken to Martha’s Vineyard, they had no ability to refuse transportation to the island. Plaintiffs were trapped midair on planes that they had boarded under false pretenses. Simply put, there was no way for them to escape.’) … and thus the Court finds that they have established a deprivation of a protected liberty interest.”

She went on to say: “Vertol and the other Defendants here were not legitimately enforcing any immigration laws,” adding: “Instead, as alleged, they ‘exploit[ed] [Plaintiffs] in a scheme to boost the national profile of Defendant DeSantis and manipulate them for political ends.’”

“Moreover, Plaintiffs’ images were captured and sent to national news media … The Court sees no legitimate purpose for rounding up highly vulnerable individuals on false pretenses and publicly injecting them into a divisive national debate … Treating vulnerable individuals like Plaintiffs in this way, as alleged and accepted as true … is nothing short of extreme, outrageous, uncivilized, intolerable, and stunning,” Burroughs continued.

Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR), a Boston-based legal group representing the migrants, hailed the ruling as a “major victory”.

“It sends a crucial message: private companies can, and will, be held accountable for helping rogue state actors violate the rights of vulnerable immigrants through illegal and fraudulent schemes,” LCR said.

Alianza Americas echoed similar sentiments, calling Burroughs’s ruling an “important legal victory … [for] our highly vulnerable sisters and brothers, who were subjected to severe emotional distress under false pretenses and horribly used for a divisive political circus”.

Meanwhile, in a statement to the Guardian following the ruling, DeSantis’s office defended its actions, saying: “As we’ve always stated, the flights were conducted lawfully and authorized by the Florida legislature. We look forward to Florida’s next illegal immigrant relocation flight, and we are glad to bring national attention to the crisis at the southern border.”