California Officials Investigating Flight of Migrants to Sacramento

Sixteen migrants from Venezuela and Colombia were abruptly flown on a private chartered jet to California and dropped off outside a Catholic church building in Sacramento on Friday, state officials said, prompting an investigation into whether they were transported from outside a Texas migrant center under false pretenses.

While it remained unclear on Sunday who approached the group of migrants outside El Paso and orchestrated their flight from New Mexico to California, the episode mirrored an aggressive tactic used by hard-line Republican governors to protest President Biden’s immigration policies by dispatching dozens of migrants to Democratic-led states and cities with little warning or explanation. Many of the migrants told a nonprofit organization they had no idea they were going to California.

On Sunday, a spokeswoman for California’s attorney general, Rob Bonta, said the migrants were carrying documents that mentioned the Florida Division of Emergency Management and the state’s “voluntary transportation program.” The documents also named Vertol Systems Company Inc. as the contractor for the Florida program and the one carrying out the transport.

That was the same 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 Mr. DeSantis, a Republican who has made immigration a major theme of his campaign for president, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On the campaign trail, he frequently highlights his decision to send migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.

Mr. Bonta and Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, both Democrats, met with the migrants on Saturday, pledging to take care of them while they remained in the state and to begin an inquiry into how they were brought to California and whether they were misled. In separate statements, both men did not rule out the possibility of pursuing criminal or civil charges for those involved in transporting the migrants.

The state, 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.

The group 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.

The migrants were then transported to New Mexico and taken 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 who had joined together outside the migrant center. Many of them were seeking asylum in the United States, but none of the migrants, to her knowledge, intended to go to Sacramento.

Sacramento ACT and other organizations are working to find them secure housing and to help with their next steps. Several of the migrants have court appointments elsewhere in the country.

“We’ve all made the comment that this is something we never have seen or expected,” Ms. Flores said. “Another big question is, Is this going to keep happening?”

Mayor Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, a Democrat, said he was “heartened” by the 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. (The company did not respond to a request for comment.)

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. Those flights 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 latest round of flights.

Mr. DeSantis has a $3,300-a-plate fund-raiser scheduled in Sacramento on June 19 and has publicly traded barbs with Mr. Newsom over immigration. As he barnstorms the early nominating states of the presidential campaign, his recounting of the migrant flights has generated some of his biggest applause lines.

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