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California Investigates DeSantis' Role in Migrants' Arrival in Sacramento

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A man in a navy blue suit and tie speaks from a podium with one hand extended out as he wears a serious expression. His black hair has little gray. Gov. Gavin Newsom is seen standing in the background, blurred.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta said about 20 people ranging in age from 21 to 30 were flown by private jet to Sacramento on Monday, June 5, 2023. It was the second such flight in four days. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Officials were investigating Tuesday whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was behind a flight that picked up asylum seekers on the Texas border and flew them — apparently without their knowledge — to California’s capital, where faith-based groups scrambled to find housing and food for them.

About 20 people ranging in age from 21 to 30 were flown by private jet to Sacramento on Monday, California Attorney General Rob Bonta said. It was the second such flight in four days.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and faith-based groups who have been assisting the migrants scheduled a news conference for Tuesday morning.

Meanwhile, California Gov. Gavin Newsom lashed out at DeSantis on Twitter, calling him a “small, pathetic man” and suggesting that his state could pursue kidnapping charges.

DeSantis and other Florida officials have remained mum, as they initially did last year when they flew 49 Venezuelan migrants to the upscale Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard, luring them onto private jets from a shelter in San Antonio. The governor didn’t mention the flights during a Tuesday bill-signing ceremony, and his administration hasn’t provided information on the flights despite multiple requests from The Associated Press.

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DeSantis, who is seeking the Republican nomination 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.

He has made the migrant relocation program one of his signature political priorities, using the state legislative process to direct millions of dollars to it and working with multiple contractors to carry out the flights.

Vertol Systems Co., which was paid by Florida to fly migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, appears to be behind the flights to Sacramento on Monday and last Friday, Bonta said, adding that the migrants were carrying “an official document from the state of Florida” that mentions the company. The company didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

Altogether, more than three dozen migrants arrived in Sacramento on the flights Friday and Monday. Most are from Colombia and Venezuela. California had not been their intended destination, and shelters and aid workers were taken by surprise, authorities said.

Friday’s group was dropped off at the Roman Catholic Church diocese’s headquarters in Sacramento. U.S. immigration officials had already processed them in Texas and given them court dates for their asylum cases, and none had planned to arrive in California, said Eddie Carmona, campaign director at PICO California, a faith-based group helping the migrants in Sacramento.

Asylum seekers can change the location of their court appearances, but many are reluctant to try and instead prefer sticking with a firm date, at least for their initial appearances. They figure it is a guarantee, even if horribly inconvenient.

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 by DeSantis mark an escalation in tactics. The two groups sent to Sacramento never went through Florida. Instead, they were approached in El Paso, Texas, by people with Florida-linked paperwork, sent to New Mexico, then put on private flights to California’s capital, California officials and advocates said.

A brick building with verdant landscaping on a sunny day and a brick sign reading "Catholic Diocese of Sacramento: The Pastoral Center."
The offices of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento are seen in Sacramento on 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. (Trân Nguyen/AP Photo)

Bonta, who met with some of the migrants who arrived Friday, said they told him they were approached by two women who spoke broken Spanish and promised them jobs. The women traveled with them by land from El Paso to Deming, New Mexico, where two men then accompanied them on the flight to Sacramento. The same men were on the flight Monday, Bonta said.

“To see leaders and governments of other states and the state of Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis, acting with cruelty and inhumanity and moral bankruptcy and being petty and small and hurtful and harmful to those vulnerable asylum seekers is blood-boiling,” Bonta said in a Monday interview.

Some of the migrants who arrived Friday told Bonta they had met each other on their nearly three-month journey to the United States and decided to stick together to keep each other safe as they slept on the streets in several countries, he said.

As the migrants arrived in California Monday, a Texas sheriff’s office announced it had recommended criminal charges over the two flights to Martha’s Vineyard last year.

Johnny Garcia, a spokesperson for the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, said the office is not naming suspects at this time. It’s not clear whether the local district attorney will pursue the charges, which include misdemeanor and felony counts of unlawful restraint, according to the sheriff’s office.

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The office of New Mexico Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had no specifics as to why the immigrants were taken from Texas to New Mexico before being flown to California.

“Gov. Lujan Grisham stresses, yet again, the urgent need for comprehensive, thoughtful federal immigration reform which is rooted in a humanitarian response that keeps border communities in mind,” the governor’s spokesperson, Caroline Sweeney, said Monday.

Last year, DeSantis directed Republican lawmakers in Florida to create a program in his office dedicated to migrant relocations. It specified that the state could transport migrants from locations anywhere in the country. The law was designed to get around questions about the legality of transporting people on a flight that originated in Texas.

Florida’s alleged role in the arrival of the two groups in Sacramento is sure to escalate the political feud between DeSantis and Newsom, who have offered conflicting visions on immigration, abortion and a host of other issues.

Olga Rodriguez reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Fla., Paul J. Weber in Austin, Texas, Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed.

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