As California Accuses Florida of Shipping Migrants, More Arrive in Sacramento


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May 04, 2023

As California Accuses Florida of Shipping Migrants, More Arrive in Sacramento

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As California officials accused Florida of shipping migrants to its capital city last week, about 20 more people, mostly from Venezuela, arrived on Monday on the same chartered plane.

By Shawn Hubler, Edgar Sandoval and Nicholas Nehamas

Shawn Hubler reported from Sacramento, Edgar Sandoval from San Antonio and Nicholas Nehamas from Miami.

A group of Latin American migrants aboard a chartered private plane landed at a small airport in Sacramento on Monday, the second such planeload in three days to arrive in California's capital city from an airfield in New Mexico.

The group of 20 migrants — 16 from Venezuela, two from Colombia, one from Nicaragua and one from Mexico, according to California's Justice Department — landed just before 10:30 a.m. Pacific time and was ushered into a room at Sacramento Executive Airport to meet with state law enforcement officials. One of the migrants, David Mata, 28, said he arrived in the United States from Venezuela roughly two weeks ago looking for work. Mr. Mata said that he did not know who had orchestrated his trip to Sacramento, but that whoever did had paid for it in its entirety.

Another group of migrants arrived on Friday at a different Sacramento airport aboard the same private plane. The authorities in California said those migrants carried papers indicating that their travel had been "administered by the Florida Division of Emergency Management" and its contractor, Vertol Systems Company, which is based in Florida.

It was not immediately clear whether the group that arrived on Monday carried similar papers, but a state Justice Department official said it appeared that the same company, and the state of Florida, was involved. The official said that two of men who were on the flight on Friday, both believed to be connected with Vertol, were also on board the plane when it arrived in Sacramento on Monday.

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California and the state's attorney general, Rob Bonta, who are both Democrats, have said that they believed Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican running for president, had arranged for the flight on Friday.

So far, Mr. DeSantis has not acknowledged that Florida was responsible, although the details of the incident — 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 county sheriff in Texas announced that he was recommending that prosecutors file criminal charges pertaining 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 were taken from there to a municipal airport about 100 miles away in New Mexico. After they arrived in Sacramento, they were dropped off outside a church building.

Over the weekend, Mr. Newsom and other California officials accused Vertol of transporting the group under a false promise of jobs if the migrants agreed to be taken to California. Mr. Bonta said that California state investigators would pursue the possibility of criminal or civil charges against whoever was involved in flying the migrants, calling the action "morally bankrupt."

The migrants who arrived on Monday — who said their journey, too, had begun in El Paso — were flown to Sacramento from the same airport in New Mexico, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware. (It had been a long trip. Around lunchtime, Steven Thompson, 62, the owner of a flight school at Sacramento Executive Airport, ordered three Little Caesars pizzas for the migrants. The group could be heard clapping and cheering when the food arrived.)

Wilkendri Rodriguez, 23, said in an interview at the airport 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 dangerous journey through the jungle to reach Texas from Venezuela, said he had eagerly agreed.

"It's something you don't wish on others, because it's too much, a lot of death," Mr. Rodriguez said of his trek to the United States. He said he was extorted by criminal gangs during the journey.

He said the people who offered him the flight to California told him they could help him find work.

"I don't know what is their motivation to organize these trips," he said in Spanish. "I don't know if it's political or part of the government. They didn't tell us anything."Mr. Rodriguez added that the people told him, "If you want to go, go, or stay. Nobody is being obligated."

Representatives of Mr. DeSantis have not responded to requests for comment. Neither has the Florida Division of Emergency Management, which is running 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 program on Monday morning but did not discuss the migrants who had mysteriously appeared in Sacramento.

Representatives for Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas have said that they were not involved in the trips to California.

If Mr. DeSantis is indeed responsible for the latest flights, they offer a taste of how he may use the power of his office to aid his presidential campaign. He is scheduled to hold a fund-raiser in Sacramento on June 19, part of a swing through California to meet wealthy donors.

On the campaign trail, he frequently invokes the migrant flights he sent to "beautiful" Martha's Vineyard, usually to cheers from his audiences, and claims that under President Biden, the nation's southern border has "collapsed."

"We have opposed illegal immigration by banning sanctuary cities, cracking down on human smuggling, deploying troops to help on the southern border and even sending illegal aliens to Martha's Vineyard," Mr. DeSantis said last week at a rally outside Des Moines.

On Monday, Mr. Newsom, who has clashed repeatedly with Mr. DeSantis, responded to his Florida counterpart on Twitter by calling him "pathetic" and suggesting that the flights could result in "kidnapping charges."

Mr. DeSantis has said that he is trying to wake up residents of Democratic cities and states to the border crisis by delivering migrants to their doorsteps. Mr. Abbott of Texas has 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, has described his city as being "destroyed by the migrant crisis," leading to criticism from other Democrats.

Early last month, the federal government ended Title 42, a pandemic-era policy put in place by former President Donald J. Trump that allowed immigration officials to quickly expel people crossing the border from Mexico. More recently, the Biden administration has enacted new limits on who can apply for asylum in the United States.

The surge of migrants in recent months has also left other cities like Washington, Chicago and Denver scrambling to accommodate them and provide social services.

The Martha's Vineyard flights took 49 mostly Venezuelan migrants from San Antonio to the island in September. Vertol contractors gave the migrants a pamphlet, written in English and Spanish, that suggested help would be waiting for them on their arrival in Massachusetts. Among the promised benefits was assistance finding jobs, housing, food and clothing. But no one on Martha's Vineyard knew they were coming, leading the migrants to say that they had been lied to.

The alleged deception prompted a raft of lawsuits and investigations against Florida and its contractors, including a federal class-action lawsuit from the migrants and a criminal investigation by Sheriff Javier Salazar of Bexar County, Texas, a Democrat whose jurisdiction includes San Antonio.

In a statement released on Monday, the sheriff's office said it believed "felony and misdemeanor charges of unlawful restraint" were warranted, although it did not name the people it believed should be charged. "At this time, the case is being reviewed by the D.A.'s office," the statement said. Any decision by prosecutors is likely several weeks away.

Those earlier flights also drew a state court lawsuit from 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 Florida.

In response, Mr. DeSantis called state legislators to a special session in February, where they passed a new law to allow Florida to transport migrants from anywhere within the United States. Later, 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 dismiss his suit after the new law passed. But in an interview on Monday, he said he believed the sole point of resuming the flights was to further Mr. DeSantis's political ambitions.

"This is beyond theater," Mr. Pizzo said. "These are not bad people, they’re not criminals, they are refugees and asylum seekers."

Florida spent more than $1.5 million on the migrant flight program last year. The 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 records showed that Mr. DeSantis's top aides were intimately involved in planning the flights to Martha's Vineyard, even traveling to San Antonio to help arrange them.

In the meantime, 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 that she was outside the shelter at the Sacred Heart Church last week when a woman approached 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 turned her down because she was planning to travel to Chicago. Still, the woman insisted, telling her she could help change Ms. Cova's immigration court date to California.

"She told me that we did not have to worry about anything, that she would be giving us a free ride to California," Ms. Cova recalled. "She was very friendly, a little too friendly, I thought."

"Something about her," she added, "did not feel right."

Ivan Pierre Aguirre contributed reporting from El Paso.

Shawn Hubler is a national correspondent based in California. Before joining The Times in 2020 she spent nearly two decades covering the state for The Los Angeles Times as a roving reporter, columnist and magazine writer, and shared three Pulitzer Prizes won by the paper's Metro staff. @ShawnHubler

Edgar Sandoval is a reporter with the National desk, where he writes about South Texas people and places. Previously he was a newspaper reporter in Los Angeles, Pennsylvania and Florida. He is the author of "The New Face of Small Town America." @edjsandoval

Nicholas Nehamas is a campaign reporter, focusing on the emerging candidacy of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Before joining The Times in 2023, he worked for nine years at The Miami Herald, mainly as an investigative reporter. @NickNehamas