Florida official says migrants flown to California went willingly and refutes claims of coercion

California Attorney General Rob Bonta says he’s investigating whether any violations of criminal or civil law occurred. Governor DeSantis has previously paid to relocate migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard

Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento
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.Tran Nguyen (AP)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration said Tuesday that three dozen migrants whom the state flew from the U.S. southern border to California on private planes all went willingly, refuting allegations by California officials that the individuals were coerced to travel under false pretenses.

Two planes arrived in Sacramento, on Friday and Monday, each carrying asylum-seekers mostly from Colombia and Venezuela. The individuals had been picked up in El Paso, Texas, taken to New Mexico and then put on charter flights to California’s capital of Sacramento, said California Attorney General Rob Bonta. He’s investigating whether any violations of criminal or civil law occurred.

Alecia Collins, a spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said in a statement that “through verbal and written consent, these volunteers indicated they wanted to go to California.” She also shared a video compilation that appeared to show people signing consent forms and thanking officials for treating them well.

The clips had no time stamps, and Collins declined to share additional details about when and where they were recorded.

It was the DeSantis administration’s first acknowledgment that it coordinated the flights.

This isn’t the first time DeSantis’ administration has transported migrants from Texas to other states. Last fall, Florida flew 49 Venezuelans to the upscale Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard. The move was intended to protest federal immigration policy.

Last month, DeSantis, who recently announced a presidential bid, signed into law a bill approving $12 million for a program to relocate migrants, even if they never step foot in Florida.

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 in El Paso. 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.

He said the asylum seekers have court dates in New York, Utah and Colorado and carried a document that “purports to be a consent and release form” that is designed to shield Florida from liability.

“Of course, what’s important is what is actually said and represented and told to the individuals and we’ve got good indications of what that was and the fact that it was false, misleading, and deceptive,” Bonta said.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and faith-based groups are working together to help the newcomers, who are staying at two undisclosed locations in the city and have been given food, clothing and cellphones to contact their families.

“Sacramento should be a model for the rest of the state and the rest of the nation,” Steinberg said at a news conference Tuesday.

None of the migrants spoke at the news conference.

Gabby Trejo, executive director of Sacramento ACT, a collaboration of religious congregations in the Sacramento area, said all of the migrants had already been given pending court dates by U.S. immigration officials before they were approached in Texas by people promising jobs. Trejo said that they had been “lied to and deceived.”

“They couldn’t have landed in a better place because Sacramentans know what it means to come together and we are here to walk with them,” Trejo said.

Sacramento ACT did not immediately respond to a request for comment later Tuesday about the video released by DeSantis’ administration and the assertions that all the migrants went to California willingly.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office, meanwhile, doubled down on its criticism of DeSantis.

“This is exploitative propaganda being peddled by a politician who has shown there are no depths he won’t sink to in his desperate effort to score a political point,” said Anthony York, a spokesman for Newsom.

Newsom indicated in a tweet Monday that California may consider kidnapping charges against DeSantis. Such charges would likely be extremely difficult to prove, particularly given the migrants signed waivers. Bonta has not directly said he is considering kidnapping charges.

As the migrants arrived in California Monday, a Texas sheriff’s office announced it had recommended misdemeanor and felony charges for “unlawful restraint” over the two flights to Martha’s Vineyard last year. Johnny Garcia, a spokesman for the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, said the office is not naming suspects at this time, and it’s not clear whether the local district attorney will pursue the charges.

DeSantis’ latest apparent move to send migrants to California’s capital city appears to be a direct shot at Newsom. Though Newsom has no plans to run for president in 2024, he and DeSantis have frequently used each other as political foils as they cast their own governing approach as a model for the nation. Beyond immigration policy, the two have sparred on abortion access, LGBTQ+ and civil rights, and a host of other cultural issues.

On the campaign trail, DeSantis has been eager to slap at progressive policies in Democratic strongholds such as New York and California, claiming that Florida’s population boom in recent years has been driven by people fleeing blue-state policies.

DeSantis is currently positioned as the strongest Republican alternative to former President Donald Trump in the GOP’s crowded primary, although Trump maintains a big lead in early polls.

It’s not yet clear if the new arrivals in Sacramento plan to stay in California or will eventually seek to go elsewhere, advocates said. Four who arrived on the first flight on Friday have already been picked up by friends or family members, but the rest remain in the care of local advocacy groups.

The faith-based coalition is also connecting the migrants with medical and legal services, said Shireen Miles, a longtime Sacramento ACT volunteer. She said several people have court hearings as soon as next week in places such as Chicago, New York and Denver, which immigration attorneys are working to reschedule.

Since they arrived, advocates have taken the migrants to a thrift store to pick out clothing and have let them choose what meals to eat, advocates said.

“We’re allowing them to define what their needs are and how we can best meet them,” said Cecilia Flores, of Sacramento ACT.

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