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Attorney for migrants sees path to visas

The possibility of a criminal case could expedite legal residency

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Attorney for migrants sees path to visas
Immigration attorney Julio Henriquez COURTESY PHOTO

After news broke last week that a group of 50 Venezuelan migrants arrived unannounced via airplane to Martha’s Vineyard, immigration attorney Julio Henriquez knew he had to do something.

Henriquez, who came to the United States from Venezuela in 2006, joined a group of attorneys working with Lawyers For Civil Rights to provide legal aid for the migrants, who are seeking asylum in the United States.

In a political stunt engineered by Florida Governor and presumptive 2024 presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, the migrants were duped into boarding the plane in Texas by a woman who called herself Ms. Perla and promised them jobs and help with their asylum cases. Flyers given to the migrants promised them up to eight months of cash assistance and assistance with housing and clothing.

DeSantis, who has claimed full credit for chartering the plane to Martha’s Vineyard, has taken a hardline stance against immigration. His actions mirror those of Texas Gov. John Abbot and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who chartered buses of migrants to New York and Washington, D.C., putting a strain on those cities’ homeless shelters.

“All those people in D.C. and New York were beating their chest when Trump was president, saying they were so proud to be sanctuary jurisdictions,” DeSantis told the New York Times. “The minute even a small fraction of what those border towns deal with every day are brought to their front door, they all go berserk.”

After landing in Martha’s Vineyard, the Venezuelan migrants were sheltered in a church Thursday. Friday, they voluntarily boarded a ferry for Cape Cod, where they were placed in a makeshift shelter on a military base.

Henriquez said the migrants he spoke with did not understand why they ended up in Martha’s Vineyard, an island of pricey vacation homes many had never heard of.

“They did not understand what had happened to them,” he said. “They had just been on a long journey across international borders. They understood it was a ruse, but they didn’t understand why.”

Henriquez and other attorneys had to explain the broader political context to the migrants.

“Figuring out they were pawns of a political stunt was just mind-blowing to them,” he said. “They were in the news. It felt to them like they had been treated like zoo animals.”

Once they gained the trust of the migrants, Henriquez and the other pro-bono attorneys began the long task of sorting out their asylum cases.

“The immediate thing was to make sure they didn’t miss their check-ins with ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], because they could be deported,” he said. “A lot of them had check-ins scheduled for Monday, the 19th. We had to make sure we contacted ICE and described to them why they couldn’t be at their check-ins.”

Henriquez said the basis for many of the migrants’ asylum claims stems from political unrest and repression in Venezuela. Some of the migrants were targeted for conscription into armed groups that support the Venezuelan government. Others were subject to arbitrary arrests from the government.

While DeSantis’ political stunt won’t likely factor into their asylum claims, Henriquez said, it may open up another avenue for the migrants to secure legal residency in the United States. Because the migrants were duped into boarding the plane under false pretense, DeSantis and others in his administration may have broken federal laws. Should U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Rachael Rollins or any other federal prosecutor seek charges against DeSantis or anyone else who participated in the scheme, the 50 migrants would be eligible for U Visas, which are made available to victims of crimes and to witnesses instrumental to prosecutors’ cases.

“With a U Visa, they can eventually become permanent residents and, ultimately, U.S. citizens,” Henriquez said. “I don’t know what the next steps are, but very likely, federal prosecutors will investigate this.”

The process of naturalization could take years, Henriquez says. Immigrants with U Visas typically must wait five years before they can even obtain work permits. Henriquez, who is representing five of the migrants, says he will represent them through the process.

In the meantime, volunteers are helping the migrants with basic needs.

“Everyone has to find a place to live,” he said. “They need to start their lives, register their kids in schools and connect to new communities. They need to leave that shelter. Many of them have already done so.”yawu

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