Migrant flights to California were organized by Florida; advocates claim they were misled

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(NEW YORK) — Florida officials confirmed on Tuesday that they organized two flights carrying migrants from Texas to California in recent days.

It’s the latest example of a controversial strategy under Gov. Ron DeSantis, who says he wants to spotlight what he calls the failures of southern border policies — as migrant advocates say he is exploiting vulnerable people for political ends.

State officials in Florida insist they are helping safely send migrants where they want to go, not deceiving them.

Community leaders and officials in California say that 36 immigrants in total have been flown from Texas to Sacramento since Friday. Approximately 20 migrants arrived on a flight on Monday and another group of about 16 landed three days earlier.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for Sacramento Area Congregations Together (ACT), a community group, gave an overview of what the migrants say they experienced when they were flown into the city.

The people were originally approached outside a migrant center in El Paso, Texas, by a group purporting to be part of an organization that could help them relocate, Sacramento ACT spokesperson Cecilia Flores said.

She said that all of the migrants who arrived in Sacramento are asylum seekers and are awaiting immigration court hearings. City officials are now helping to link the group with immigration lawyers to make sure they don’t miss their court dates.

The group is made up of people in their 20s and 30s, mostly from Colombia, Guatemala and Venezuela, Flores said. One dog — named Geico — also traveled with them.

Flores said the migrants were originally told they’d be provided with shelter, housing and job opportunities.

The migrants said they did not know they were getting on a plane to California, according to Flores. After both flights, the groups were dropped off outside the Diocese of Sacramento and were told by the people transporting them that they’d return — but instead these people left and never came back.

The 16 migrants who arrived Friday did not know where they were and only had a backpack’s worth of belongings, Diocese of Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto previously said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the California Attorney General’s office said that the private company Vertol Systems organized the flights. Vertol also coordinated flights for Florida transporting migrants to Martha’s Vineyard last year.

Representatives with Vertol could not be reached for comment for this story.

Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, community faith leaders in Sacramento said that while a “handful” of the migrants have since been picked up by family members, many in the group do not have any ties to the area and will likely be reuniting with their loved ones throughout the country. Some may choose to stay in the area, however.

The Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) on Tuesday sharply challenged the details of how the migrants were flown from Texas to California. DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

FDEM shared a video with ABC News that they claim shows some of the migrants signing paperwork and volunteering to get on a flight.

ABC News could not independently verify where and when the images were taken.

In one part of the video a man is seen saying, in Spanish, “We made it to California. Thank God. Very thankful to God.”

Another part of the video appears to show a group dancing and celebrating inside a vehicle and a woman is seen asking the group if they feel like they were treated poorly, to which the group responds, “No.”

A spokesperson for FDEM insisted in a statement that “as you can see from this video, Florida’s voluntary relocation is precisely that – voluntary. Through verbal and written consent, these volunteers indicated they wanted to go to California. A contractor was present and ensured they made it safely to a 3rd-party NGO [in Sacramento].”

However, on Tuesday, a spokesperson from Sacramento ACT said they believe the migrants were misled into getting on the flights.

Outcry from California leaders

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has raised the specter of kidnapping charges for the coordinators of the migrant flights and he singled out DeSantis by name.

In a social media post on Monday, Newsom called DeSantis a “small, pathetic man,” adding, “This isn’t Martha’s Vineyard” alongside a photo of the state statute that explains kidnapping charges.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta likewise denounced how the migrants were transported.

“We are a nation built by immigrants and we must condemn the cruelty and hateful rhetoric of those, whether they are state leaders or private parties, who refuse to recognize humanity and who turn their backs on extending dignity and care to fellow human beings,” Bonta said in a statement this weekend.

State officials are evaluating potential civil action against those who transported or arranged for the transport of “these vulnerable immigrants,” Bonta has said.

The California Department of Justice likewise is investigating the circumstances around the group’s travel and whether the individuals orchestrating this trip misled anyone with false promises or have violated any criminal laws, Newsom has said.

In their statement on Tuesday, the FDEM spokesperson pushed back on such claims.

“From left-leaning mayors in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, Colorado, the relocation of those illegally crossing the United States border is not new. But suddenly, when Florida sends [migrants] to a sanctuary city, it’s false imprisonment and kidnapping,” the FDEM spokesperson said.

That echoes what DeSantis has previously said about the migrant flights.

Last year, amid controversy over chartered planes sent to Martha’s Vineyard, a tiny island community off the coast of Massachusetts, DeSantis said the choice to send migrants from Texas and not Florida was a way to prevent a large group of migrants from coming to his state.

“Florida gave them an opportunity to seek greener pastures in a sanctuary jurisdiction that offered greater resources for them, as we expected,” his office said in a statement at the time.

The governor has maintained that many of the migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas plan to travel to Florida and that it is easier to meet them at the source.

Last year, DeSantis suggested complaints over the migrant flights were hypocritical compared with what happens to other people who try to enter the country.

“You’ve had migrants die in the Rio Grande — you had 50 die in Texas in a trailer because they were being neglected,” DeSantis said on Fox News in September. “Was there a freakout about that? No, there wasn’t.”

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