2nd flight carrying migrants lands in Sacramento; California officials say Florida arranged travel
*This story was updated on Monday, June 4, 2023 at 5:45 p.m.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Another plane carrying migrants arrived in Sacramento on Monday, marking the second flight in recent days that California officials allege was coordinated by Florida.
The flight carrying roughly 20 migrants that arrived Monday follows the arrival Friday of 16 migrants from Colombia and Venezuela, who were taken from Texas to New Mexico before they were put on a chartered plane to California's capital. It's not clear what countries the latest group of arrivals are from, but their travel appears to have been arranged by the same company, said Tara Gallegos, a spokesperson for California Attorney General Rob Bonta.
Bonta says he's investigating whether any crimes were committed.
The first group of migrants was dropped off at the Roman Catholic Church diocese’s headquarters in Sacramento.
They carried documents that said they were transported through a program run by Florida’s Division of Emergency Management and carried out by contractor Vertol Systems Co., Gallegos said. She said she couldn’t share the documents because they are part of an active investigation.
Spokespeople for the Florida Division of Emergency Management and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis have not confirmed Florida’s involvement, and Vertol Systems didn't respond to requests for comment.
“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.
Florida Democrats condemned the migrant flights, calling his policies "draconian." In a statement released on Monday, Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried said DeSantis needs to focus on running the State of Florida instead of using innocent people as a political stunt.
"These migrant flights are borderline human trafficking, and everyone involved should be ashamed of themselves. It’s cruel and inhumane." she said in the statement.
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.
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.
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.
Florida paid Vertol Systems $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.
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.
The flight, if proven 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?”
Associated Press writer Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed.