TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — More than a dozen migrants were flown to Sacramento and dropped off in front of a Catholic church on Friday, sparking speculation from California officials that the flight was arranged by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration.
DeSantis created a national furor last September when his administration paid to fly nearly 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, an act that he frequently mentions during public appearances and speeches, including while campaigning for president.
But so far his administration had not commenced a second round of flights — even after state lawmakers expanded the program in February in response to a lawsuit that challenged whether the governor had the authority to ship people from Texas to Massachusetts. There is also an ongoing lawsuit in Massachusetts federal court that sought to block any more flights by Florida.
Both California Gov. Gavin Newsom and California Attorney General Rob Bonta put out statements on over the weekend saying they had met with a group of migrants who traveled from Texas to New Mexico before being flown to Sacramento.
Bonta suggested that the DeSantis administration may be linked to the operation because he said the migrants appeared to have paperwork connected to Florida, though he did not provide details on the documentation. The migrants flown last fall by the DeSantis administration to Martha’s Vineyard were given pamphlets detailing the benefits available to them in Massachusetts.
“We are investigating the circumstances by which these individuals were brought to California,” Bonta said. “We are also evaluating potential criminal or civil action against those who transported or arranged for the transport of these vulnerable immigrants. While this is still under investigation, we can confirm these individuals were in possession of documentation purporting to be from the government of the state of Florida.”
Eddie Carmona, campaign director at PICO California, a faith-based community organizing group that has been assisting the migrants, told The Associated Press that the migrants had already been given court dates for their asylum cases when a person representing a private contactor approached them outside a migrant center in El Paso, Texas. Carmona told the AP that “they were lied to and intentionally deceived.”
The Associated Press identified the migrants as originating from Colombia and Venezuela.
The latest flights could be considered political retaliation against Newsom, who has been a constant critic of Florida's policies. The California governor recently visited New College of Florida in Sarasota, a school currently undergoing a conservative overhaul led by DeSantis. At the time, Newsom said the efforts by DeSantis to rebrand the school were part of his efforts of "bullying and intimidating vulnerable communities."
Newsom also recently requested information from DeSantis, the Florida Department of Education and textbook publishers over changes made to K-12 textbooks that were requested by the Florida education agency.
DeSantis is headed to Texas on Tuesday for a three-day six-city fundraising tour according to a schedule obtained by The Texas Tribune. The governor is also headed to California later this month, where he will hold a June 19th breakfast fundraiser in Sacramento, the Sacramento Bee reported.
DeSantis was just one of a handful of governors or city leaders who have transported migrants. Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott has bused thousands of migrants from his state to Democrat-led cities like Washington, D.C., Chicago and NYC while New York Mayor Eric Adams, who has railed against the lack of resources available to handle an influx of migrants, has also transported migrants outside of his city.
Both DeSantis’ administration and the Florida Division of Emergency Management — which now oversees the relocation program — did not immediately respond to inquiries from POLITICO on Sunday.
DeSantis has been a persistent and vocal critic of the immigration policies of President Joe Biden, and one of his allies — Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody — has contended in federal court that the Biden administration is ignoring federal immigration laws.
During his presidential campaign stops over the past week, DeSantis vowed to reinstitute some of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies such as “remain in Mexico” and promised to complete construction of a border wall.
“You deserve to have a secure border, you deserve to have the rule of law,” DeSantis said during a visit to Iowa right before he became an official candidate for president. “Someone comes across the border stop them and send them back on the other side … Don’t give them a piece of paper and say you come back for a court date in four years. What kind of a deterrence is that?”
Florida’s GOP-controlled Legislature in 2022 first gave DeSantis $12 million to operate the migrant relocation program through the Florida Department of Transportation, but authorities shifted control to the state Division of Emergency Management. State records suggested that the company that operated the first round of flights was paid $1.56 million.
The emergency management division in early May posted a notice that it intended to award contracts to three vendors to work on the migrant relocation program. DeSantis also signed an immigration bill last month that included an additional $12 million for the program.
Andrew Atterbury, Lara Korte and Jeremy White contributed to this story.