Sixteen migrants from Venezuela and Colombia were flown abruptly on a private jet to California and left outside a Catholic church building in Sacramento on Friday, state officials said, prompting an investigation into whether they were flown in from outside of a Texas migrant center under false pretenses. .
While it was unclear on Sunday who approached the group of migrants outside El Paso and orchestrated their flight from New Mexico to California, the episode mirrored an aggressive tactic used by hardline Republican governors to protest immigration policies of President Biden sending dozens of migrants to Democratic-led states and cities with little warning or explanation. Several of the migrants told a non-profit organization they had no idea they were going to California.
On Sunday, a spokeswoman for California Attorney General Rob Bonta said the migrants were carrying documents that mentioned the Florida Division of Emergency Management and the state’s « voluntary transportation program. » The documents also named Vertol Systems Company Inc. as the Florida program contractor and transportation manager.
That was the same company used for transportation in the fall when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis directed two planeloads of South American migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, a Democratic-leaning Massachusetts island.
Representatives for DeSantis, a Republican who has made immigration a major theme in his campaign for president, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. During the campaign, he often emphasizes his decision to send migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.
Mr. Bonta and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, both Democrats, met with the migrants on Saturday, pledging to care for them while they remained in the state and to launch an investigation into how they were brought to California and whether they were deceived. . In separate statements, both men did not rule out the possibility of pursuing criminal or civil prosecutions for those involved in transporting the migrants.
The state, along with the city of Sacramento and local nonprofits, will work « to ensure that individuals who have arrived are treated with respect and dignity and reach their intended destination while pursuing their immigration cases, » Newsom said in a declaration. Several non-profit organizations in Sacramento also confirmed they spoke to the migrants.
The 16 migrants had been approached outside a migrant center near El Paso by people who said they were there on behalf of a private contractor and could help them get to a center where they would receive assistance by securing work, housing, clothes and other necessities, according to state officials and nonprofits.
The migrants were then flown to New Mexico and taken on a chartered flight to Sacramento, where they were driven to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento. Left outside a church administration building, the migrants had backpacks with their belongings, little information on their whereabouts, and a promise that someone would come and pick them up.
“Those I’ve talked to – they feel they lied; some of them said they were abandoned,” said Cecilia Flores, who works with the Sacramento ACT, a community organization. « They couldn’t understand why anyone would do such a thing. »
The group, she said, did not include children and appeared to be made up of young women and men under the age of 40 who had banded together outside the migrant centre. Many of them were seeking asylum in the United States, but none of the migrants, as far as she knew, had any intention of going to Sacramento.
Sacramento ACT and other organizations are working to find them safe housing and to help them with their next steps. Many of the migrants have court appointments in other parts of the country.
« We’ve all commented that this is something we’ve never seen or expected, » Ms. Flores said. « Another big question is: Will this continue to happen? »
Mayor Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, a Democrat, said he was « heartened » by the investigation, adding that « whoever is behind it must answer. »
The episode is at least the second time in recent months that migrants have been transported to Sacramento from Texas. In September, a smaller group of Venezuelans who had crossed the border in Laredo, en route to New York, Florida and Utah, showed up in front of a Catholic Charities building in the California capital.
They had papers directing them to local U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices, but officials were unable to determine who sent them. Many had walked the 10 miles from Sacramento International Airport, some without shoes.
Data from FlightAware, a website that tracks flights across the country, shows a non-stop flight between Deming Municipal Airport in Luna County, New Mexico and McClellan Airport in Sacramento, which landed shortly before 11:00 a.m. on Friday after about three hours. A representative of Berry Aviation, a charter service based in San Marcos, Texas, he told The Sacramento Bee that the flight was « something the government handled » but did not comment further.
Vertol, the company that is said to have flown the migrants to Sacramento, is an aviation company and defense contractor based in Destin, Florida. He has ties to Republican leaders in Florida, as well as with one of Mr. DeSantis’ top aides, Larry Keefea former US attorney who previously represented the firm in lawsuits and then driven the state’s migrant flight schedule. (The company did not respond to a request for comment.)
Like Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican who sent busloads of migrants to Washington and New York last year, Mr. DeSantis decided to send dozens of South American migrants to a Democratic-leaning state in an attempt to attract attention about an influx of migrants to the southern border at the time. Mr. DeSantis has been targeting Martha’s Vineyard, where former President Barack Obama has a vacation home, and has considered a separate flight for a airport near Mr. Biden’s home in Delaware. (That flight to Delaware was cancelled.)
The 49 migrants on Martha’s Vineyard charter flights, operated by Vertol, said they were lured onto the planes with promises of aid that would be waiting for them when they landed. But no one on the ground knew they were coming, sending local officials scrambling to provide food and shelter and causing a violent backlash across the country.
The migrants, many of whom were among the millions who fled a devastating economic crisis in Venezuela, later sued DeSantis and other state officials in a lawsuit that is still pending. Those flights cost at least $1.5 million in taxpayer money, state records show.
But Mr. DeSantis and his Republican allies in Florida have since doubled down. Lawmakers this year voted to expand the state’s migrant flight program, authorizing a $12 million budget, and the state recently hired three private contractors, including Vertol, to organize the latest round of flights.
Mr. DeSantis is planning a $3,300-a-plate fundraiser in Sacramento on June 19 and has publicly traded banter with Mr. Newsom about immigration. As he storms the first nomination states of the presidential campaign, his account of the flights of migrants has generated some of the biggest rounds of applause of him.