Texas sheriff puts Martha’s Vineyard migrants on path to apply for special visa by declaring them crime victims

A Texas sheriff has certified that dozens of migrants who were flown from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, last month under a new program by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis were crime victims, boosting their eligibility for a special visa.

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said Thursday he had filed certification forms that immigration lawyers say can be used to obtain visas reserved for crime victims or people who witness certain crimes.

“Based upon the claims of migrants being transported from Bexar County under false pretenses, we are investigating this case as possible Unlawful Restraint," Salazar said in a statement. "We have submitted documentation through the federal system to ensure the migrants’ availability as witnesses during the investigation."

Rachel Self, a Boston-based attorney who represents five of the migrants, said she had flown to San Antonio to meet with the sheriff and arrange for all 49 migrants to receive the certifications required to begin an application process for U-1 nonimmigrant visas, or "U visas," which are reserved for victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and could help law enforcement or government officials investigate or prosecute criminal activity.

In an emailed statement, Self said she has been working closely with Salazar and his department "over the last few weeks" to assist them in their investigation, including through conducting interviews and collecting accounts, photos and videos.

Salazar, an elected Democrat, said last month that his office had opened a criminal investigation into the flights from Texas to Martha's Vineyard. He said the migrants appeared to have been “lured under false pretenses” into staying at a hotel for a couple of days before they were flown to Florida and then to Martha’s Vineyard.

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Self said: "No matter what your political beliefs are, these people are all crime victims. 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."

WGBH radio of Boston reported Salazar's certifications earlier Thursday.

Successful U visa applicants are permitted to remain in the U.S. in nonimmigrant status and obtain work authorization, and the visas "eventually can lead to Lawful Permanent Residence," Self said, cautioning that the process is lengthy.

More than 285,000 U visa petitions were pending at the end of last year, according to Department of Homeland Security data.

Susan Church, an attorney who has been coordinating legal responses to the migrant flights and represents two plaintiffs in a lawsuit against DeSantis, Florida and others, said DeSantis’ action would likely have the unintended consequence of helping migrants secure their stays in the U.S.

“It’s very difficult to attempt to remove them while their U visa is pending,” Church said. “The irony of DeSantis’ cruel trick that was played on these individuals is not only are many of them now eligible for a green card through this process, but they’ve been shipped into a jurisdiction where they probably can't even be removed while that application is pending.”

DeSantis and his administration have denied breaking any laws with the new program.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com