Florida appears to have arranged for a group of South American migrants to be transported from Texas to California and dropped off in Sacramento, California's attorney general said, noting that he's looking into whether any crimes may have been committed.
If true, the 16 Colombian and Venezuelan migrants who turned up at the Roman Catholic Church diocese’s headquarters in Sacramento on Friday would be the latest to have been moved from a Republican-led state to one led by Democrats.
The migrants had documents that appeared to be issued by the state of Florida, though the circumstances surrounding their arrival were still under investigation, Attorney General Rob Bonta said Saturday.
He also said he's evaluating whether violations of civil or criminal law took place.
“While we continue to collect evidence, I want to say this very clearly: State-sanctioned kidnapping is not a public policy choice, it is immoral and disgusting,” Bonta said in a statement.
The migrants entered the U.S. through Texas. Eddie Carmona, campaign director at PICO California, a faith-based group that helps migrants, said U.S. immigration officials had already processed the young women and men and given them court dates for their asylum cases when “individuals representing a private contractor” approached them outside a migrant center in El Paso, Texas, and offered to help them get jobs and get them to their final destinations.
“They were lied to and intentionally deceived,” Carmona said, adding that the migrants had no idea where they were after being dropped off in Sacramento. He said they have court dates in cities throughout the country, not only in Texas, and that none of them meant to end up in California.
The migrants were transported from Texas to New Mexico and then flown by charter plane to California’s capital, where they were dropped off in front of the diocese's headquarters, California officials said.
The migrants' documents said they were transported through a program run by Florida's Division of Emergency Management and carried out by contractor Vertol Systems Co., said Tara Gallegos, a spokesperson for Bonta. She said she couldn't share the documents because they are part of an active investigation.
Florida paid the same contractor $1.56 million last year to fly migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, and for a possible second flight to Delaware that never took place. The Republican governors of Texas and Arizona have previously sent thousands of migrants on buses to New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., but the rare charter flights are an escalation in tactics.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is seeking the Republican nomination to run for president, has been a fierce critic of federal immigration policy under President Joe Biden and has heavily publicized Florida's role in past instances in which migrants were transported to Democratic-led states.
DeSantis has made the migrant relocation program one of his signature political priorities, using the state legislative process to direct millions of dollars to it.
Before the flight from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard last year, DeSantis signed off on a Republican-backed budget that earmarked $12 million to relocate people in the country illegally from Florida to other locations.
When questions arose around the legality of the Martha’s Vineyard fight because it originated in Texas, not Florida, in apparent violation of budgetary language, DeSantis had Republicans legislators create a program in his office dedicated to migrant relocations and specify that the state can transport migrants from locations anywhere in the country.
DeSantis’ administration has selected three vendors to help transport migrants.
Neither Vertol Systems nor DeSantis' office responded to requests for comment. Alecia Collins, a spokesperson for the Florida Division of Emergency Management, which oversees Florida's migrant flights program, said in an email Monday that she couldn't immediately confirm whether the agency was involved in this latest instance.
The flight, if proved to have been arranged by Florida, would intensify a prolonged political feud between DeSantis and California's Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom. The two have offered conflicting visions on immigration, abortion and a host of other issues.
Newsom said in a statement that he also met with the newly arrived migrants and that officials were working to ensure that they are “treated with respect and dignity” through this process.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg issued a more forcefully worded statement: “Whoever is behind this must answer the following: Is there anything more cruel than using scared human beings to score cheap political points?”