Florida confirmed on Tuesday that it was behind two private jet flights that brought three dozen people seeking asylum from the US southern border to California amid accusations that the individuals were coerced to travel under false pretenses.
The state’s division of emergency management said in a statement that the passengers all went willingly, and refuted allegations from California officials such as the governor, Gavin Newsom, who had threatened Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, with kidnapping charges.
Two planes arrived in Sacramento on 2 and 5 June, each carrying people seeking asylum, mostly from Colombia and Venezuela. The individuals had been picked up in El Paso, Texas, taken to New Mexico and then put on charter flights to California’s capital of Sacramento, said Rob Bonta, the state’s attorney general. Bonta, who said Florida would be guilty of “state-sanctioned kidnapping” if it was found to be behind the flights, is investigating whether any violations of criminal or civil law occurred.
Alecia Collins, a spokesperson for the Florida division of emergency management, said in a statement that “through verbal and written consent, these volunteers indicated they wanted to go to California”. She also shared a video compilation that appeared to show people signing consent forms and thanking officials for treating them well.
The clips had no time stamps, and Collins declined to share additional details about when and where they were recorded.
It was the DeSantis administration’s first acknowledgment that it coordinated the flights.
This isn’t the first time the DeSantis administration has transported migrants from Texas to other states. Last fall, Florida flew 49 Venezuelans to the upscale Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard. This week a Texas sheriff filed a criminal case over the flights to Martha’s Vineyard – the sheriff has previously said the migrants were “lured under false pretenses” into traveling to the wealthy liberal town.
Last month, DeSantis, who recently announced a presidential bid, signed into law a bill approving $12m for a program to relocate migrants, even if they never step foot in Florida.
Bonta, who met with some of the migrants who arrived on Friday, said they told him they were approached by two women who spoke broken Spanish and promised them jobs in El Paso. The women traveled with them by land from El Paso to Deming, New Mexico, where two men then accompanied them on the flight to Sacramento. The same men were on the flight on Monday, Bonta said.
He said the asylum seekers have court dates in New York, Utah and Colorado and carried a document that “purports to be a consent and release form” that is designed to shield Florida from liability.
“Of course, what’s important is what is actually said and represented and told to the individuals, and we’ve got good indications of what that was and the fact that it was false, misleading and deceptive,” Bonta said.
Darrell Steinberg, Sacramento’s mayor, said faith-based groups are working together to help the newcomers, who are staying at two undisclosed locations in the city and have been given food, clothing and cellphones to contact their families.
Gabby Trejo, the executive director of Sacramento ACT, a collaboration of religious congregations in the Sacramento area, said all of the arrivals had already been given pending court dates by US immigration officials before they were approached in Texas by people promising jobs. Trejo said that they had been “lied to and deceived”.
Newsom’s office, meanwhile, doubled down on its criticism of DeSantis.
“This is exploitative propaganda being peddled by a politician who has shown there are no depths he won’t sink to in his desperate effort to score a political point,” said Anthony York, a spokesperson for Newsom.
Newsom indicated in a tweet on Monday that California may consider kidnapping charges against DeSantis. Such charges would likely be extremely difficult to prove, particularly given that the migrants signed waivers.
DeSantis’s latest apparent move to send migrants to California’s capital city appears to be a direct shot at Newsom. Though Newsom has not announced any plans to run for president in 2024, he and DeSantis have frequently sparred on immigration policy, abortion access, LGBTQ+ and civil rights, and a host of other cultural issues.
It is not yet clear if the new arrivals in Sacramento plan to stay in California or will eventually seek to go elsewhere, advocates said. Four who arrived on the first flight on Friday have already been picked up by friends or family members, but the rest remain in the care of local advocacy groups.
The faith-based coalition is also connecting the migrants with medical and legal services, said Shireen Miles, a longtime Sacramento ACT volunteer. She said several people have court hearings as soon as next week in places such as Chicago, New York and Denver, which immigration attorneys are working to reschedule.