Wed. Sep 27th, 2023

Sixteen migrants from Venezuela and Colombia were abruptly flown on a private chartered jet to California and dropped off outside a church building in Sacramento on Friday, state officials said, accusing a contractor for a state-funded Florida program of transporting the group from outside a Texas migrant center under a false promise of jobs if the migrants agreed to be taken to California.

“We’re confident it was Florida,” California’s attorney general, Rob Bonta, said in an interview on Sunday, citing documents the migrants showed authorities upon their arrival that indicated their travel had been “administered by the Florida Division of Emergency Management” and its contractor, Vertol Systems Company.

Mr. Bonta, whose office is investigating the episode, said that the migrants, who are not fluent in English, had been approached outside El Paso and told “in broken Spanish” to sign the documents as a condition of boarding the plane to Sacramento, but that not all had understood where they were going and not all had signed.

The episode mirrored an aggressive tactic used by hard-line Republican governors to protest President Biden’s immigration policies by dispatching dozens of migrants, with little explanation or warning, to states and cities led by Democrats. Vertol Systems was the company used for transport in the fall when Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida directed two planeloads of South American migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, a Democratic-leaning Massachusetts island.

Representatives for Vertol and for Mr. DeSantis, a Republican who has made immigration a major theme of his campaign for president, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. On the campaign trail, Mr. DeSantis, who has a fund-raiser scheduled in Sacramento on June 19 and who has publicly traded barbs with Gov. Gavin Newsom of California over immigration, frequently highlights his decision to send migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.

Mr. Bonta and Mr. Newsom, both Democrats, met with the migrants on Saturday, pledging to take care of them while they remained in the state.

On Sunday, Mr. Bonta said that members of the group had taken photos and videos of their trip, capturing images of the people who had approached them in Texas and chaperoned their trip to Sacramento as their anxiety over the situation mounted.

He vowed to aggressively pursue the possibility of criminal or civil charges for those involved in the transport, calling the action “morally bankrupt.”

“To be clear, this was the state of Florida using its budget to move migrants in Texas to New Mexico and California,” he said. “These are migrants who never were in Florida.”

California, along with the city of Sacramento and local nonprofits, will work “to ensure the people who have arrived are treated with respect and dignity, and get to their intended destination as they pursue their immigration cases,” Mr. Newsom said in a statement. Several nonprofit organizations in Sacramento also confirmed that they had spoken with the migrants.

Mr. Bonta said that the migrants, many of whom had met one another during their journey and banded together for safety, included a girl who had turned 18 on the road and a father who had left six children behind in a desperate bid to provide for his family.

One man, Mr. Bonta said, played him a voice mail message in Spanish from his 9-year-old daughter: “Papa, I’m hungry — we didn’t eat today,” the attorney general said, translating the message. “Mama is sick.”

The 16 migrants had been approached outside a migrant center near El Paso, by people who said they were there on behalf of a private contractor and could help them get to a center where they would receive assistance securing a job, shelter, clothing and other necessities, according to state and nonprofit officials.

Reading from paperwork that migrants shared with authorities, Mr. Bonta said they had been instructed to sign and initial waivers saying they agreed “to participate in the state of Florida’s voluntary transportation program,” and that they understood that “this program is administered by the Florida Division of Emergency Management” and that “a contractor for this program is Vertol Systems Company Inc.”

The waivers, which echo documents carried by migrants in previous transport cases, did not mention jobs, he said, and released Florida and Vertol of any liability.

Mr. Bonta said Florida authorities would most likely cite the paperwork to argue that the migrants had given informed consent, as Mr. DeSantis contended after the episode at Martha’s Vineyard. But, Mr. Bonta added, they “weren’t fully informed and it wasn’t fully consensual.”

The migrants were then transported to New Mexico and flown on a chartered flight to Sacramento, where they were driven to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento. Left outside an administrative building for the church, the migrants had backpacks of belongings, little information about where they were and a promise that someone would be coming to get them.

“The ones that I’ve spoken to — they feel they’ve been lied to; some of them have said they were abandoned,” said Cecilia Flores, who works with Sacramento ACT, a community organization. “They couldn’t understand why anyone would do something like that.”

The group, she said, did not include children and appeared to be made up of young women and men under the age of 40. Many of them were seeking asylum in the United States, but none of the migrants, to her knowledge, had intended to go to Sacramento.

Sacramento ACT and other organizations are working to find the migrants secure housing and to help with their next steps. Several of the migrants have court appointments elsewhere in the country, and some have out-of-state court dates within the next two weeks, Mr. Bonta said.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, a Democrat, said he was “heartened” by the attorney general’s investigation, adding that “whoever is behind this must answer.”

The episode is at least the second time in recent months that migrants have been transported to Sacramento from Texas. In September, a smaller group of Venezuelans who had crossed the border in Laredo, bound for New York, Florida and Utah, showed up outside a Catholic Charities building in California’s capital city.

They had documents directing them to the local offices of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but officials were unable to determine who had sent them. Several had walked the 10 miles from the Sacramento International Airport, some without shoes.

Data from FlightAware, a website that tracks flights across the country, shows one direct flight between Deming Municipal Airport in Luna County, N.M., and Sacramento McClellan Airport that landed on Friday just before 11 a.m. after roughly three hours. A representative for Berry Aviation, a charter service based in San Marcos, Texas, told The Sacramento Bee that the flight was “something that the government ran,” but did not comment further.

Vertol, the company that was said to have brought the migrants to Sacramento, is an aviation firm and defense contractor based in Destin, Fla. It has ties to Republican leaders in Florida, as well as to one of Mr. DeSantis’s top aides, Larry Keefe, a former U.S. attorney who previously represented the firm in lawsuits and then spearheaded the state’s migrant flight program.

Like Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican who sent buses of migrants to Washington and New York last year, Mr. DeSantis made a point of sending dozens of South American migrants to a Democratic-leaning state in an effort to draw attention to an influx of migrants at the southern border at the time.

Mr. DeSantis targeted Martha’s Vineyard, where former President Barack Obama has a vacation home, and considered a separate flight to an airport near Mr. Biden’s Delaware home. (That flight to Delaware was called off.)

The 49 migrants on the Martha’s Vineyard charter flights, run by Vertol, said they were tricked into getting on the planes with promises of aid that would be waiting for them when they landed. But no one on the ground knew they were coming, sending local officials scrambling to provide food and shelter and prompting fierce backlash across the country.

The migrants, many of whom were among the millions of people who have fled a devastating economic crisis in Venezuela, later sued Mr. DeSantis and other state officials in a lawsuit that is still pending. The migrant flight program cost at least $1.5 million in taxpayer money, state records show.

But Mr. DeSantis and his Republican allies in Florida have since doubled down. Lawmakers voted to expand the state’s migrant flight program this year, authorizing a $12 million budget, and the state recently hired three private contracting companies, including Vertol, to organize the program.

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