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Texas Sheriff Certified Migrants Sent to Martha’s Vineyard as ‘Crime Victims’ to Obtain Special Visas, Immigration Attorney Says

Influx Of Venezuelan Migrants Adds To Already Stressed Southern Border And Shelters

Groups of Migrants wait outside the Migrant Resource Center to receive food from the San Antonio Catholic Charities on Sept. 19, 2022 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images)

The Texas sheriff who opened an investigation into the treatment of migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard has certified those immigrants as “crime victims” so that they can obtain a special visa, their lawyer said.

“I flew down to San Antonio to meet with the Sheriff, the chief of his organized crime division, and other members of the sheriff’s department to arrange for all of the migrants to receive the certifications they need to begin the U-visa application process,” attorney Rachel Self told reporters in an email, stating that the trip occurred on Monday.

U-visas are a special category of relief available to victims of certain crimes, including human trafficking.

“No matter what your political beliefs are, these people are all crime victims,” she added.

On Sept. 19, Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar announced that he opened a criminal investigation into how 48 migrants, mostly from Venezuela and seeking asylum, were “lured under false pretenses” from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. The announcement received national attention because of the role Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said he played in organizing the transfer of migrants from Florida to Massachusetts, as a political statement on immigration and sanctuary jurisdictions.

Speaking with fiery indignation about the motive, Salazar told reporters at the press conference: “Somebody saw fit to come from another state, hunt them down, prey upon them, and then take advantage of their desperate situation just for the sake of political theater, just for the sake of making a statement.”

Salazar identified Self at the time as the lawyer with whom he consulted about the migrants’ experiences. In a recent interview with Law&Crime, Self shared her clients’ accounts of a woman named Perla, who is said to have lured them.

On Wednesday night, Self told reporters that Perla’s victims had a breakthrough in their journey to the United States.

“I now hold in my hand certifications for every one of Perla’s victims,” she wrote in an email. “Once certified, the crime victim can apply to USCIS for a U visa, which, if approved, allows them to remain in the US in non-immigrant status and eventually can lead to Lawful Permanent Residence.”

Self emphasized that her clients have a long way to go.

“This is not a quick and easy process,” she wrote. “U visa applications often take six or seven years just to be adjudicated. While the application is pending, the applicant can receive work authorization, but there is no guarantee as to when it will be granted. This is not a process anyone goes through for a quick fix.”

DeSantis has been sued twice for his allegedly “fraudulent” scheme to use Florida taxpayer dollars to send migrants from Texas to Massachusetts. He has not been accused of criminal wrongdoing or named explicitly in Salazar’s investigation to date. The governor’s supporters have gloated that Martha’s Vineyard, known as a wealthy and liberal island, will feel the brunt of the state’s permissive immigration policies.

Self has said that the island’s residents welcomed the migrants with open arms, but the designs of those who sent them there may have backfired.

“Ironically by choosing to transport the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, which is in the First Circuit, all of these victims are now protected from removal while their U visa application is pending due to the Granados Benitez case,” she wrote in an email.

Decided by the First Circuit in January 2011, the appellate court’s ruling in the Granados Benitez case overturned the Board of Immigration Appeals denial of a Honduran immigrant’s application to reopen his removal proceedings in light of his U-visa status pursuant to the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. The immigrant had a wife and 5-year-old daughter who are U.S. Citizens.

In a lengthy message, Self said that the certifications for her clients will make a statement:

No criminal should rest easy knowing that they can do whatever they want because their victims might be scared to talk to the police. These certifications will ensure that the migrants can continue to help our law enforcement officials, and that they will be able to process and heal from the incredibly traumatic experiences they have suffered as a result of the cruel, heartless acts committed against them.

These certifications are yet another powerful example of how, if we work together, justice is possible. And we know justice is not just possible – it is necessary. If we are going to live up to the ideals embodied in our Constitution, we have to ensure that justice is served. I am incredibly proud to have been working alongside the migrants every step of the way, helping them and law enforcement begin to address the crimes committed. This is simply too important, to our country and to these people, to allow the wrongs committed against them to be buried under political bluster. These are people who were victimized. I am extremely grateful to Sheriff Salazar for not standing idly by.

Even before they arrived on the island, these people were survivors. They are unfortunately already accustomed to doing the best they can for themselves and their families despite horrible circumstances. They will continue to do so, showing more respect for the rule of the law and the values of this nation than the people who chose to use them as political pawns. And we will continue to remind them that they are not alone. We have their backs. And we are proud to be here for them.

Sheriff Salazar’s office did not immediately respond to Law&Crime’s press inquiry.

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."