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District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine has opened an investigation into whether southern border state governors misled immigrants as part of what he called a “political stunt” to transport them to Washington.
Racine told ProPublica and The Texas Tribune his office is examining whether immigrants were deceived by trip organizers before boarding buses for Washington, including several hundred who were bused from Texas under instructions from Gov. Greg Abbott and dropped near the official residence of Vice President Kamala Harris. Racine’s office has the authority to bring misdemeanor criminal charges or to file civil fraud cases.
Racine said that in interviews with his investigators, arriving immigrants “have talked persuasively about being misled, with talk about promised services.” He offered no specifics about the inquiry, including whether it is being handled by his office’s criminal or civil divisions. The attorney general’s office declined to answer further questions.
Various state and federal laws could apply to transporting immigrants across state lines. Racine’s office could look into whether anyone committed fraud by falsely promising jobs or services, whether there were civil rights violations or whether officials misused taxpayers’ money.
Racine’s investigation comes after weeks of escalating tensions between some Republican governors and the Biden administration over immigration policy. In April, Abbott began busing to Washington immigrants who had been processed and released by federal immigration officials, and he later expanded the initiative to New York and Chicago. To date, more than 12,000 immigrants have been relocated from border towns.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has followed Abbott’s lead and bused 2,170 immigrants to Washington on 60 buses, according to Ducey’s spokesperson, C.J. Karamargin. Most of them, he said, had said they hoped to relocate to New York, New Jersey or Florida.
Last month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is seeking reelection, turbocharged the issue and moved it to the forefront of a national debate on Biden’s immigration policies. He sent two charter flights to Martha’s Vineyard carrying Venezuelan immigrants who had arrived in Texas. Local officials in Texas have said they were not consulted.
The immigrants and their advocates said that passengers on the charter flights had been told they would be given jobs and support. A sheriff in Texas has opened a criminal investigation into whether Florida officials violated the law by recruiting the migrants from a Texas shelter.
Racine’s involvement ratchets up the pressure on the governors over their actions.
Elected as a Democrat, Racine criticized the Republican governors for using “people as props. That’s what they’ve done with the immigrants.”
Racine’s office can prosecute certain misdemeanors, and felonies are handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. But its highest profile work has been bringing civil fraud lawsuits against nonprofits and businesses. In May, it reached a $750,000 settlement in a lawsuit against former President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, alleging that it had abused donors’ funds by overpaying for rentals at the Trump International Hotel.
The governors have said they have done nothing wrong in transporting immigrants to “sanctuary cities” that may be better equipped to care for them. They say they want the rest of the nation to share the burden of what they call the Biden administration’s open border policies.
Abbott, who is also campaigning for reelection, said that he had had immigrants bused from Texas to Harris’ residence in D.C. to call attention to border security, saying on Twitter, “We’re sending migrants to her backyard to call on the Biden Administration to do its job and secure the border.”
In a statement to ProPublica and the Tribune, Abbott’s press secretary, Renae Eze, denied that any trickery has been involved in Texas’ migrant transportation program, which has now sent 8,200 people to Washington on over 195 buses, 3,200 to New York City on over 60 buses and 920 to Chicago on over 15 buses.
“These Democrat elites in our nation’s capital know nothing about Texas’ busing operations. These migrants willingly chose to go to Washington, D.C., having signed a voluntary consent waiver available in multiple languages upon boarding that they agreed on the destination. And they were processed and released by the federal government, who dumped them in small Texas border towns,” she wrote.
DeSantis’ office did not respond, but the governor has said he intends to transport more immigrants out of Florida. Ducey’s spokesperson said Arizona is working with a regional health center to ensure that immigrants are well-treated and get to their final desired destinations. Ducey has said he will continue busing migrants to Washington until he leaves office in January.
Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, an advocacy group, said that some immigrants who were sent from Texas to Harris’ residence in Washington have told his team they were misled about their final destination. The immigrants believed they were bound for Union Station, the city’s central transportation hub, where many hoped to connect with family or trains and buses to other locations. Instead, he said, they were dropped off at about 6 a.m. in an unfamiliar spot, where a church group quickly organized to pick them up.
“I think they are being tricked and being used,” Garcia said.
Since the spring, buses have arrived almost daily at Union Station, where immigrants can now seek support from a new city Office of Migrant Services. So far, Texas taxpayers have spent about $14 million on migrant transportation, according to state records. Buses into Washington have continued in recent days, with several additional arrivals at the vice president’s residence.
Meanwhile, Florida procurement records suggest that the state transportation agency intends to continue using charter air services to transport immigrants out of the state until June 30. The vendor chosen for the charter flights is run by a state Republican donor.
The U.S. Treasury Department’s inspector general is examining Florida’s use of money from COVID-19 funds to finance its migrant transportation program, Politico reported. DeSantis’s office says it used the money properly.
Kirsten Berg contributed research.
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