California officials: Florida picked up asylum-seekers on Texas border and flew them to Sacramento

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By TRÂN NGUYỄN and OLGA R. RODRIGUEZ

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The state of Florida picked up asylum-seekers on the Texas border Monday and took them by private jet to California’s capital city at taxpayer expense for the second time in four days, California officials said, prompting allegations that migrants were misled and catching shelters and aid workers by surprise.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials were mum, as they were initially last year when they flew 49 Venezuelan migrants to the upscale Massachusetts enclave of Martha’s Vineyard, luring them onto private jets from a shelter in San Antonio.

As California Attorney General Rob Bonta investigated the migrants’ transportation, local officials and faith-based groups sought to provide housing, food and other resources to the more than three dozen new arrivals. Many were from Colombia and Venezuela, and California had not been their intended destination.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, meanwhile, lashed out at DeSantis as a “small, pathetic man” and suggested the state could pursue kidnapping charges.

And as the migrants arrived in California, a Texas sheriff’s office announced Monday it has recommended criminal charges over the two flights to Martha’s Vineyard last year.

Johnny Garcia, a spokesman for the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, said at this time they are not naming suspects. It’s not clear whether the district attorney will pursue the charges, which include misdemeanor and felony counts of unlawful restraint, according to the sheriff’s office.

The Republican governors of Texas and Arizona have previously sent thousands of migrants on buses to New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., but the rare charter flights by DeSantis mark an escalation in tactics. The two groups sent to Sacramento never went through Florida. Instead, they were approached in El Paso by people with Florida-linked paperwork, sent to New Mexico, then put on the private flights to California’s capital, California officials and advocates said.

DeSantis, who is seeking the Republican nomination to run for president, has been a fierce critic of federal immigration policy under President Joe Biden and has heavily publicized Florida’s role in past instances in which migrants were transported to Democratic-led states.

He has made the migrant relocation program one of his signature political priorities, using the state legislative process to direct millions of dollars to it and working with multiple contractors to carry out the flights. Vertol Systems Co., which was paid by Florida to fly migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, appears to be behind the flights to Sacramento, California officials said. The company didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

In Sacramento, the flight that arrived Monday with about 20 migrants followed the arrival Friday of 16 others from Colombia and Venezuela. The newest arrivals remained at the airport for a couple of hours and were fed before being transported to a “religious institution,” said Kim Nava, a Sacramento County spokeswoman. Nava said she didn’t know the nationalities of the new arrivals or where they had intended to go in the U.S.

“Our county social workers are en route and are going to assess all those folks, make sure they have the services and support that they need,” Nava said.

The first group of migrants was dropped off at the Roman Catholic Church diocese’s headquarters in Sacramento.

Speaking over the weekend about the first group to arrive in Sacramento, Eddie Carmona, campaign director at PICO California, a faith-based group that helps migrants, said U.S. immigration officials had already processed the young women and men and given them court dates for their asylum cases when “individuals representing a private contractor” approached them outside a migrant center in El Paso, Texas, and offered to help them get jobs and get them to their final destinations.

“They were lied to and intentionally deceived,” Carmona said, adding that the migrants had no idea where they were after being dropped off in Sacramento. He said they have court dates in cities throughout the country and that none of them meant to end up in California.

Asylum seekers can change the location of their court appearances, but many are reluctant to try and instead prefer sticking with a firm date, at least for their initial appearances. They figure it is a guarantee, even if horribly inconvenient.

The office of New Mexico Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had no specifics as to why the immigrants were taken from Texas to New Mexico before being flown to California.

“Gov. Lujan Grisham stresses, yet again, the urgent need for comprehensive, thoughtful federal immigration reform which is rooted in a humanitarian response that keeps border communities in mind,” the governor’s spokesperson, Caroline Sweeney, said Monday.

Last year, DeSantis directed Republican lawmakers in Florida to create a program in his office dedicated to migrant relocations. It specified that the state could transport migrants from locations anywhere in the country. The law was designed to get around questions about the legality of transporting people on a flight that originated in Texas.

Florida’s alleged role in the arrival of the two groups in Sacramento is sure to escalate the political feud between DeSantis and Newsom, who have offered conflicting visions on immigration, abortion and a host of other issues. ___

Rodriguez reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Fla., Paul J. Weber in Austin, Texas, Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed.

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