A group of Latino migrants aboard a chartered private plane landed at a small Sacramento airport on Monday, the second such airload in three days to arrive in the California capital from a New Mexico airport.
The group of about 20 migrants, who said they were mostly from Venezuela, landed just before 10:30 Pacific time and were ushered into a room at Sacramento Executive Airport to meet with California Department of Justice officials . One of the migrants, David Mata, 28, said he arrived in the United States from Venezuela about two weeks ago in search of work. Mr. Mata said he didn’t know who orchestrated his trip to Sacramento, but whoever did had paid for it in full.
Another group of migrants arrived Friday at another Sacramento airport aboard the same private plane. California authorities said those migrants had documents indicating their trip was « administered by the Florida Division of Emergency Management » and its contractor, Vertol Systems Company, which is based in Florida.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the group that arrived on Monday had similar documents, but a state Justice Department official said it appeared the company itself and the state of Florida were involved.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom and state attorney general Rob Bonta, both Democrats, said they believe Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican running for president, had arranged the flight on Friday.
So far, Mr. DeSantis has not acknowledged that Florida was responsible, although the details of the crash — including the apparent involvement of Vertol, a private air services and defense contractor — mirror an operation last fall, when the governor sent two planeloads of migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
On Monday, a Texas county sheriff announced he was recommending prosecutors file criminal charges related to the Martha’s Vineyard flights, though he said nothing about who should be charged.
The migrants who were flown to California on Friday began their journey at a shelter in El Paso and from there were flown to a municipal airport about 100 miles away in New Mexico. After arriving in Sacramento, they were taken out of a church.
Over the weekend, Mr. Newsom and other California officials accused Vertol of transporting the group under a false promise of work if the migrants agreed to be flown to California. Mr Bonta said California state investigators would pursue the possibility of criminal or civil charges against anyone involved in transporting the migrants, calling the action « morally bankrupt ».
The migrants who arrived on Monday — who said their journey also began in El Paso — were flown to Sacramento from the same New Mexico airport, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware. (It had been a long trip. Around lunchtime, Steven Thompson, 62, owner of a flight school at Sacramento Executive Airport, ordered three Little Caesar pizzas for migrants. The group could be heard cheering and clap when the food arrived.)
Wilkendri Rodriguez, 23, said in an airport interview that two men and two women had approached him at an El Paso shelter and asked if he wanted to go to California. Mr. Rodriguez, who had survived a perilous trek through the jungle to reach Texas from Venezuela, said he eagerly agreed.
“It’s something you don’t want for others, because it’s too much, much death,” Mr. Rodriguez said of his trip to the United States. He said he was extorted by criminal gangs during the trip.
He said the people who offered him the flight to California told him they could help him find work.
« I don’t know what their motivation is for organizing these trips, » she said in Spanish. “I don’t know if he is a politician or part of the government. They didn’t tell us anything. »
Mr. Rodriguez added that people have told him, “If you want to go, go or stay. No one is forced. »
Representatives for DeSantis did not respond to requests for comment. Not even the Florida Division of Emergency Management, which runs the state’s taxpayer-funded program to transport migrants from the southern border to other areas of the United States. Mr. DeSantis appeared on a Fox News radio show Monday morning but did not speak about the migrants who had mysteriously appeared in Sacramento.
Representatives for Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas said they were not involved in the California trips.
If Mr. DeSantis is indeed responsible for the latest flights, they offer a glimpse into how he might use the power of his office to help his presidential campaign. He plans to hold a fundraiser in Sacramento on June 19, part of a drive through California to meet wealthy donors.
While campaigning, he frequently invokes the migrant flights he sent to « beautiful » Martha’s Vineyard, usually to the applause of his audience, and says that under President Biden, the nation’s southern border has « collapsed. »
“We have stood up to illegal immigration by banning sanctuary cities, cracking down on human trafficking, deploying troops to help on the southern border, and even sending stowaways to Martha’s Vineyard,” DeSantis said at a rally outside Des Moines last week.
On Monday, Mr. Newsom, who has repeatedly clashed with Mr. DeSantis, responded to his Florida counterpart on Twitter calling him « pathetic » and suggesting the flights could lead to « kidnapping allegations. »
Mr. DeSantis said he is trying to raise awareness among residents of Democratic cities and states of the border crisis by delivering migrants on their doorstep. Mr. Abbott of Texas also sent busloads of migrants to northern cities. Mayor Eric Adams of New York City, where tens of thousands of asylum seekers have ended up since last spring, described his city as « ravaged by the migrant crisis, » prompting criticism from other Democrats.
Early last month, the federal government ended Title 42, a pandemic-era policy enacted by former President Donald J. Trump that allowed immigration officials to quickly deport people crossing the border from Mexico. More recently, the Biden administration enacted new limits on who can apply for asylum in the United States.
The wave of migrants in recent months has also left other cities such as Washington, Chicago and Denver struggling to accommodate them and provide social services.
Martha’s Vineyard flights brought 49 migrants, mostly Venezuelans, from San Antonio to the island in September. Vertol’s contractors gave the migrants a pamphlet, written in English and Spanish, suggesting they would be helped to wait for them when they arrived in Massachusetts. Among the promised benefits was assistance in finding work, housing, food and clothing. But no one on Martha’s Vineyard knew they were coming, leading the migrants to say they had lied.
The alleged deception prompted a series of lawsuits and investigations against Florida and its contractors, including a federal class action lawsuit by the migrants and a criminal investigation by Sheriff Javier Salazar of Bexar County, Texas, a Democrat the whose jurisdiction includes San Antonio.
In a statement released Monday, the sheriff’s office said it believed « misdemeanor and misdemeanor felony charges of unlawful restraint » were justified, though it did not name the people it believed should be charged. « At this time, the case is under review by the district attorney’s office, » the statement said. Any decision by prosecutors is likely several weeks away.
Those earlier flights also led to a state court lawsuit by State Senator Jason Pizzo of Florida, a Democrat who argued, among other claims, that Florida had violated existing state law by transporting migrants it found in Texas rather than in Florida.
In response, Mr. DeSantis summoned state lawmakers to a special session in February where they passed a new law to allow Florida to transport migrants from anywhere in the United States. Subsequently, the legislature authorized $12 million for the program as part of the state’s new law cracking down on undocumented immigrants.
Mr. Pizzo agreed to drop his lawsuit after the new law passed. But in an interview on Monday, he said he believed the sole purpose of the resumption of flying was to further DeSantis’ political ambitions.
« This goes beyond theater, » Pizzo said. « These are not bad people, they are not criminals, they are refugees and asylum seekers. »
Florida spent more than $1.5 million on the migrant flight program last year. Martha’s Vineyard flights cost $615,000. That same month, the state paid Vertol $950,000 for flights that were supposed to go to Delaware and Illinois, state records show. But those flights never happened.
Other documents showed that Mr. DeSantis’ top aides were intimately involved in planning the flights to Martha’s Vineyard, even en route to Sant’Antonio to help fix them.
Meanwhile, recruiters have been scouring the streets of El Paso, according to interviews with migrants at a shelter near the international bridge to Mexico.
Maria Cova, 42, an immigrant from Venezuela, said on Monday she was outside the Sacred Heart Church shelter last week when a woman approached her and offered her a free trip to California. The woman did not give her name or say who she worked for; Ms. Cova said she rejected her because she planned to travel to Chicago. However, the woman persisted, telling her she could help change Ms. Cova’s immigration court date to California.
“He told me we didn’t have to worry about anything, that he would offer us a free ride to California,” Ms. Cova recalled. « She was very friendly, a little too friendly, I thought. »
« Something about her, » he added, « just didn’t feel right. »
Ivan-Pierre Aguirre contributed reporting from El Paso.