California officials probe Florida's role in migrant flights from Texas
TALLAHASSEE -- California officials are continuing to hold Florida responsible for flights Friday and Monday that brought South American migrants from El Paso, Texas, to Sacramento.
The June flights come months after Gov. Ron DeSantis --- who recently announced his bid for president --- took credit for transporting migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom and California Attorney General Rob Bonta over the weekend said they were investigating the arrival of 16 migrants from Venezuela and Colombia, who were left outside a church in Sacramento on Friday.
The California officials maintained that the migrants had government-issued documents from Florida. But as of Monday afternoon, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration remained mum about the flights. DeSantis’ office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The same twin-turboprop aircraft that ferried migrants to the California capital city on Friday landed at Sacramento Executive Airport Monday morning, with Sacramento-based KCRA television station reporting that 20 migrants were on the flight and were met by Bonta’s staff.
Both flights traveled from El Paso to Deming, New Mexico, before arriving in Sacramento, according to the website Flight Aware.
DeSantis drew national attention last year when he used state funds to transport 49 migrants from Texas to the posh Martha’s Vineyard enclave. Attorneys representing some of the migrants filed a potential class-action lawsuit alleging the flights violated Massachusetts and federal laws. The lawsuit is pending.
In a tweet Monday, Newsom, a Democrat who frequently clashes with the Florida governor on policy issues, called DeSantis a “small, pathetic man. This isn't Martha's Vineyard. Kidnapping charges?"
Florida Democrats also blasted DeSantis, calling the latest round of flights an “immigration stunt” that bordered on “human trafficking.”
“Vulnerable people are being coerced and deceived into these programs without knowing there’s no plan on how to care for them,” said Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Nikki Fried. “It’s cruel and inhumane. Floridians should under no circumstances be footing the bill for this.”
Newsome said in a Saturday press release that efforts were underway to ensure the people from South America “dumped on the doorstep” of the Sacramento church were being “treated with respect and dignity.”
He also said the California Department of Justice was investigating who paid for the flight and “whether the individuals orchestrating this trip misled anyone with false promises or have violated any criminal laws, including kidnapping.”
Bonta also issued a statement decrying the migrants’ relocation.
“State-sanctioned kidnapping is not a public policy choice, it is immoral and disgusting,” he said, pointing the finger at DeSantis. “We can confirm these individuals were in possession of documentation purporting to be from the government of the State of Florida.”
Bonta told reporters the migrants had documentation showing they were transported through a program run by Florida's Division of Emergency Management and its contractor, Vertol Systems Company Inc.
Florida lawmakers, at the governor’s request, in 2022 gave the DeSantis administration $10 million for the “Unauthorized Alien Transport Program” to transport migrants to “sanctuary cities.” The Legislature steered another $12 million to the program, housed within the state Division of Emergency Management, this year.
DeSantis, one of the top Republican candidates in the 2024 race for the White House, has made his opposition to President Joe Biden’s immigration policies a key part of his campaign.
According to state records, the DeSantis administration has issued $3.8 million in purchase orders to Vertol for the migrant relocation program.
Newsom, meanwhile, has sharply criticized DeSantis on immigration and other policies. As an example, the California governor in April appeared at New College of Florida, which has been at the forefront of DeSantis efforts to revamp higher education.
In Saturday’s release, Newsom said his office was working with the California Department of Justice “to investigate the circumstances around who paid for the group’s travel and whether the individuals orchestrating this trip misled anyone with false promises or have violated any criminal laws, including kidnapping.”
The migrants will be treated with “respect, compassion, and care,” Bonta pledged.
“We are a nation built by immigrants and we must condemn the cruelty and hateful rhetoric of those, whether they are state leaders or private parties, who refuse to recognize humanity and who turn their backs on extending dignity and care to fellow human beings,” Bonta said.
The federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the migrants from Venezuela and the non-profit group Alianza Americas alleged that the flights to Martha’s Vineyard violated migrants’ due-process and equal-protection rights. Defendants include DeSantis, other DeSantis administration officials, contractor Vertol and alleged organizer Perla Huerta.
The lawsuit seeks damages and an injunction to prevent the state from “inducing immigrants to travel across state lines by fraud and misrepresentation.”