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Florida confirms role in migrant flights; calls them 'voluntary'

The offices of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento are seen in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, June 5, 2023. Sixteen migrants from Venezuela and Colombia were brought to the diocese's offices on Friday, June 2, 2023, after being flown from Texas to Sacramento. (AP Photo/Tran Nguyen)
Tran Nguyen/AP
The offices of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento are seen in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, June 5, 2023. Sixteen migrants from Venezuela and Colombia were brought to the diocese's offices on Friday, June 2, 2023, after being flown from Texas to Sacramento. (AP Photo/Tran Nguyen)

TALLAHASSEE -- Describing the relocations as “voluntary,” the state Division of Emergency Management confirmed Tuesday that Florida directed two flights that transported migrants from Texas to California.

Division spokeswoman Alecia Collins also pointed to a more than two-minute video posted on the social-media site Rumble that showed images of people filling out forms, listening to upbeat music in a stretch vehicle, walking across an airport tarmac and celebrating their arrival in California.

“Through verbal and written consent, these volunteers indicated they wanted to go to California,” a news release from the division said. “A contractor was present and ensured they made it safely to a 3rd-party NGO (non-governmental organization). The specific NGO, Catholic Charities, is used and funded by the federal government.”

The video included a translation of a person addressing a group of migrants and asking if “at any point” they felt like they were “treated poorly.” The translated response was, “No. No. They treated us super well.”

The confirmation Tuesday came after days of Florida staying mum, as California Gov. Gavin Newsom and California Attorney General Rob Bonta questioned the legality of flights Friday and Monday that brought South American migrants from El Paso to Sacramento.

In a Twitter post Monday, Newsom attacked Gov. Ron DeSantis as a “small, pathetic man” and brought up the possibility of kidnapping charges.

Newsom, a Democrat, has been critical of DeSantis on immigration and other issues, even traveling in April to New College of Florida, which has been at the forefront of DeSantis efforts to revamp higher education.

DeSantis, a Republican candidate for president who has made opposition to President Joe Biden’s immigration policies a key part of his platform, appeared Tuesday in Wildwood for a bill-signing event but did not discuss the flights or the accusations made by California officials.

Shortly before the Division of Emergency Management issued the news release, DeSantis’ office posted information about the actions of members of the Florida National Guard, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Florida Highway Patrol and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who have been sent to Texas to assist with border control.

DeSantis will campaign in Texas over the next three days.

DeSantis spurred a controversy in September when his administration flew 49 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. The Division of Emergency Management news release also listed migrant-relocation efforts by Texas, Arizona, New York City, Denver, Chicago and El Paso.

“From left-leaning mayors in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, Colorado, the relocation of those illegally crossing the United States border is not new,” the release said. “But suddenly, when Florida sends illegal aliens to a sanctuary city, it's false imprisonment and kidnapping.”

Newsom in a news release Saturday said efforts were underway to ensure that migrants “dumped on the doorstep” of a Sacramento church are “treated with respect and dignity.” He also said the California Department of Justice was investigating who paid for the trip and “whether the individuals orchestrating this trip misled anyone with false promises or have violated any criminal laws, including kidnapping.”

Bonta in a separate news release pointed to an investigation and said “state-sanctioned kidnapping is not a public policy choice, it is immoral and disgusting.”

Bonta’s office late Monday confirmed special agents from the California Department of Justice were on the ground with roughly 20 people who had been on a flight Monday.

“The contractor operating the flight that arrived today (Monday) appears to be the same contractor who transported the asylum seekers last week,” Bonta’s office said. “As was the case with the asylum seekers who arrived on Friday, the individuals who arrived today carried documents indicating that their transportation to California involved the state of Florida.”

Florida lawmakers included $12 million in the current year’s state budget for the Department of Transportation to carry out a “program to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.” The DeSantis administration used $615,000 of that money to pay Vertol Systems Company, Inc. to fly migrants Sept. 14 from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, with a brief stop in the Northwest Florida community of Crestview.

But with the flights facing a series of legal challenges, the Legislature on Feb. 10 passed a bill that repealed the section of the budget that was used to pay for the flights and created a new program, the Unauthorized Alien Transport Program, in state law. Also, the bill funneled remaining money provided in the budget section back to state coffers, and allocated $10 million to the newly created program — effectively swapping out money.

A legislative staff analysis at the time reported $1.565 million had been spent out of the original $12 million, including the $615,000 for the Massachusetts flights.

A state contract-tracking system showed Tuesday that Vertol has been paid or has received purchase orders totaling $4.415 million.

When the February bill was signed, Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said his agency would spend time reviewing actions of the Department of Transportation in directing the September flights.

The September flights have drawn a potential class-action lawsuit filed in Massachusetts by migrants and the non-profit group Alianza Americas. The lawsuit alleges that the flights violated federal and Massachusetts laws, including violating migrants’ due-process and equal-protection rights.

The lawsuit seeks damages and an injunction to prevent Florida from “inducing immigrants to travel across state lines by fraud and misrepresentation.”

Meanwhile, Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature included an additional $12 million for the migrant-transport program in the budget for the 2023-2024 fiscal year, which will start July 1.