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

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. Most are 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 that at this time the office is not naming suspects. It’s not clear whether the local 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 private flights to California's capital, California officials and advocates said.

Bonta, who met with some of the migrants who arrived Friday, said they told him they were approached by two women who spoke broken Spanish and promised them jobs. 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 Monday, Bonta said.

“To see leaders and governments of other states and the state of Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis, acting with cruelty and inhumanity and moral bankruptcy and being petty and small and hurtful and harmful to those vulnerable asylum seekers is blood-boiling," Bonta said in a Monday interview.

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, Bonta said, adding that the migrants were carrying “an official document from the state of Florida” that mentions the company. The company didn't respond to an email seeking comment.

Some of the migrants who arrived Friday told Bonta they met on their nearly three-month journey to the United States and decided to stick together to keep each other safe as they slept on the streets in several countries, he said. The group came from Colombia and Venezuela and all were adults, though one woman had just turned 18 on the journey, he said.

Of the new arrivals on Monday, 16 came from Venezuela, two from Colombia, one from Mexico and one from Nicaragua, he said. All were between the ages of 21 and 30, he said.

They 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.

“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. U.S. immigration officials had already processed them in Texas and given them court dates for their asylum cases, and none had planned to arrive in California, said Eddie Carmona, campaign director at PICO California, a faith-based group helping the migrants in Sacramento.

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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Find more AP coverage of immigration: https://apnews.com/hub/immigration