Martha’s Vineyard Flights for Non-citizens

A warning and cautionary tale to immigrants about immigration removal proceedings.

On September 20th, 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis chartered planes to fly 50 non-citizens to Martha’s Vineyard. These non-citizens were not refugees. However, while on the plane they were given Massachusetts Refugee Benefits pamphlets. Additionally, they were given AR-11 “change of address” forms to update their addresses with the USCIS.

The benefits pamphlet outlined services refugees are entitled to, such as, housing assistance, food, job training, application for social security cards, and cash assistance. Unfortunately, the non-citizens on the plane were NOT refugees.

On September 14th, 2022, the planes landed in Martha’s Vineyard (an island off the coast of Massachusetts). Martha’s Vineyard is only accessible by plane or by boat. After deboarding the plane, the non-citizens were abandoned, and left to fend for themselves.

The next day, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis took responsibility for orchestrating the flights. In a public statement he said, “Florida is not a sanctuary state, and we will gladly facilitate the transport of illegal non-citizens to sanctuary jurisdictions”. Governor DeSantis also disclosed the $12 Million funding for the flights came from the Florida Legislature. According to records, Governor DeSantis paid $615,000 to charter the private planes to Martha’s Vineyard. This works out to $12,300 per passenger.

Governor DeSantis stated he will continue relocating non-citizens to sanctuary jurisdictions until the $12 Million runs out.

Resulting Lawsuit

On September 20, 2022, a group of non-citizens, through the organization Alianza Americas, filed a class action complaint in district court against Governor DeSantis of the state of Florida, as well as other Florida governmental entities.

Tips for Avoiding Unlawful Relocation as an Immigrant

  1. Understand The Political Motivation Behind Relocation Offers
    Governors DeSantis (Florida), Abbott (Texas), and Ducey (Arizona), have all stated their intentions to relocate immigrants and asylum seekers to sanctuary jurisdictions. As part of these relocation measures, they will often lie to and deceive non-citizens with false offers of jobs, housing or cash assistance.
  2. Refugee Benefits” are not available to individuals in removal proceedings or who are seeking legal status inside the United States.
    Refugee Benefits, like those outlined in the the Massachusetts Refugee Benefits pamphlet, are only available to individuals who formally entered the United States and who already have refugee status.

    Benefits available to refugees (such as housing, cash assistance, employment, a social security card, etc.) are not available to non-citizens.
  3. Relocating without permission can be dangerous to your case.
    Non-citizens in removal proceedings must appear before an immigration judge in the court where the case is venued. This means, if you come into the country via Texas – and are released from a detention center in San Antonio – San Antonio is the likely venue for your case.

    Relocating without alerting the courts, can result in you missing your court date.
  4. You are required to update your address with the immigration court. This protects you from an “in abstentia” removal order.

    A non-citizen in removal proceedings must complete and file form EOIR-33 to maintain jurisdiction (venue) over his or her case. If a non-citizen misses a hearing in immigration court, that non-citizen is ordered removed automatically – formally called an order of removal in abstentia. An in abstentia removal order is, in many ways, worse than a “normal” removal order.

    Ordinarily, an individual cannot reopen and rescind (get rid of) a removal order in abstentia. The individual must prove he or she provided an updated address with the immigration court.
  5. A change of venue is required when moving states.

    Filling out a EOIR-33 change of address form is not enough. After moving states and changing your address, you must also formally request a change of venue from the courts. A change of venue is often a catch-22. A change of venue requires a non-citizen to address the allegations of removability against them. Meaning, they must deny or admit and concede to the charges. Once a non-citizen concedes removability, an immigration judge “finds the non-citizen” removable.

    This is a big deal – once a non-citizen concedes removability, an immigration judge “finds the non-citizen” removable. The non-citizen will then receive an order of removal unless the non-citizen qualifies for a defense to removal. A non-citizen should never admit and concede charges of removability until consulting with an attorney, or fully understanding what the action means. In turn, a non-citizen should not request a change of venue without understanding the charges of removability, and deciding whether to challenge them or concede them. Requesting a change of venue and blindly conceding removability can result in an instant removal order upon failure to file a defense. Changing venue is not a simple or automatic action.

    Additionally, if a non-citizen challenges the allegations and charge(s) of removability, the non-citizen will likely need to appear in person before the immigration court handling his or her case. When you challenge your removability, you are telling the immigration judge that you want the government to prove that you are removable. The government will then need to produce evidence to carry its burden – sometimes, that will be testimony from a CBP official who can testify as to your illegal entry, etc. Therefore, the judge will want to keep your case in the original immigration court to adjudicate the matter, where witnesses to your removability are more likely available. 

    Nonetheless, a valid challenge of one’s removability can be the most important part of a case: if the allegations of removability against you are incorrect or if the government cannot carry its burden of establishing that you are removable, removal proceedings against you should be terminated. You are then no longer at risk of removal and you do not need to present a defense before the court. A non-citizen should consult with an immigration attorney, or otherwise determine if he or she can challenge the charges of removability. 

    In summary, the non-citizens flown to Martha’s Vineyard had not been advised about the requirement of changing their court venues to Massachusetts. They were given an incorrect form to update their addresses with the court. Therefore, each non-citizen’s removal case would remain pending in (for example) Texas, and the non-citizens would be required to attend every hearing in Texas: required to travel back and forth between an island off the coast of Massachusetts, and Texas. 

In Conclusion:

If you have moved to a largely inaccessible island, and miss one hearing in immigration court across the country because you are unable to get there, you receive an order of in abstentia. That type of removal order is extremely difficult to rescind.

If you believe you could have traveled back to Texas for the hearing, but never received notice of the hearing because you moved and filed only form AR-11, you would still receive an in abstentia that cannot be rescinded because you failed to properly notify the court of your new address.

And finally, if you move to Martha’s Vineyard, do use the correct form EOIR-33, and do file a proper motion to change venue, you must wait for the immigration judge in Texas to grant your motion to change venue. If the judge does not grant it before your hearing date, you must travel back to Texas for your hearing. If your motion to change venue is granted before you have ever attended a hearing, you have likely conceded removability – which means that you have forfeited your right to have the government prove your removability. You will need to prepare a legal defense to removal based on the court’s deadlines, whether you have an attorney or not.

What to do if you are Detained and Offered “Free Transportation” to Another State

If you were detained and released under an order that requires check-ins with ICE, you cannot simply move to another state. You need permission from your deportation officer before doing so. Otherwise, you could be returned to immigration detention as being considered a flight risk.

We recommend that you consult with an immigration attorney if you are ever offered a free flight, bus, or other transportation to a different state. Moving to a different state – especially if you are in removal proceedings – always requires evaluation of certain factors and communication with your immigration court. Moving to a different state based on incorrect information can easily harm your immigration case.

Have more immigration questions? Quan Law Group can help. Contact us today to help you with your immigration case.