After days of silence, officials in Florida confirmed on Tuesday that the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis had orchestrated two recent charter flights that carried groups of migrants from New Mexico to Sacramento.
The flights had generated an immediate outcry from leaders in California, who promised to initiate criminal and civil investigations, saying that the migrants had been deceived into boarding the planes. They also sharply criticized Mr. DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate. On Twitter, California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, suggested that “kidnapping charges” were warranted against those responsible for the flights, on Monday and last Friday.
In a statement released on Tuesday evening, Alecia Collins, the communications director for the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said that the migrants’ relocation to California had been “voluntary,” and that they had been taken to a nonprofit.
“Through verbal and written consent, these volunteers indicated they wanted to go to California,” Ms. Collins wrote. “A contractor was present and ensured they made it safely to a third party N.G.O. The specific N.G.O., Catholic Charities, is used and funded by the federal government.”
Tuesday evening’s statement was the first time that Mr. DeSantis and his administration had addressed the flights since they landed in California’s capital city. At a bill signing ceremony on Tuesday morning, the governor, unusually, did not take questions from reporters. The silence from Mr. DeSantis on a high-profile incident drawing national interest was uncharacteristic, especially given the pointed attacks against him by Mr. Newsom and others.
Roughly three dozen migrants have arrived in Sacramento on two charter flights since last Friday. The migrants, most of whom are from Venezuela, said they had been recruited for the flights outside a shelter in El Paso. Several said they were promised help finding work. They are now being sheltered at motels in the Sacramento area, according to local nonprofits.
Gabby Trejo, the executive director of Sacramento ACT, which has been coordinating efforts to aid the migrants, said at a news conference on Tuesday that the group had been “lied to and deceived,” including with promises of jobs and housing.
Officials in California said the migrants carried papers indicating that their travel had been arranged by the Florida emergency management division and a private contractor, Vertol Systems Company, that also arranged sending two planeloads of migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard last year in an operation funded by Florida taxpayers.
The migrants sent to Martha’s Vineyard have since filed a class-action lawsuit against Mr. DeSantis and other state officials, saying they had been falsely promised jobs and other assistance when they arrived.
Florida legislators have authorized $12 million for a state program to transport migrants around the country. Mr. DeSantis has made immigration a major theme of his presidential campaign, calling for the construction of a wall on the U.S. southern border and criticizing President Biden’s border policies.
Mr. DeSantis is scheduled to hold a fund-raiser in Sacramento on June 19, part of a swing through California to meet wealthy donors.
Rachel Self, a lawyer representing a number of the Martha’s Vineyard migrants in their immigration cases, accused the Florida governor of using the flights to boost his presidential campaign.
“These are the acts of small people who make themselves feel large by stomping on the most vulnerable among us,” Ms. Self said in a statement.
For years, Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Newsom have used each other as foils to criticize what they describe as the extremes of their respective political parties. In April, Mr. Newsom, a Democrat, visited New College of Florida, a public liberal arts institution that Mr. DeSantis is trying to reshape into a bastion of right-wing thought. He also aired a television advertisement in Florida attacking Mr. DeSantis.
For his part, Mr. DeSantis has often pointed to the number of Californians moving to Florida, spurred in part, he has suggested, by the state’s looser restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.
On Monday, in the latest volley, Mr. Newsom called Mr. DeSantis “pathetic.” Rob Bonta, California’s Democratic attorney general, has said investigators are examining whether any laws were broken in sending the migrants to Sacramento. Officials from the California Department of Justice were seen interviewing the migrants who landed at Sacramento Executive Airport on Monday.
Also on Monday, a county sheriff in Texas announced that he was recommending that prosecutors file criminal charges pertaining to the Martha’s Vineyard flights last September, though he said nothing about who should be charged.
Ms. Collins, the Florida official, pointed out that cities with Democratic mayors have bused migrants to other parts of the country.
“Suddenly, when Florida sends illegal aliens to a sanctuary city, it’s false imprisonment and kidnapping,” she said in her statement. She also released a video showing the migrants smiling and waving on a plane and expressing thanks.
“We have made it to California,” one man said in Spanish. “Thank God. Very thankful to God.”
Anthony York, a spokesman for Mr. Newsom, called the video “exploitative and gross.”
“The attorney general has an active investigation ongoing,” Mr. York said. “We’ll see if his findings are consistent with the propaganda being peddled by the state of Florida or not.”
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