As California accuses Florida of sending immigrants, more arrive in Sacramento

A group of Latin American immigrants aboard a private chartered plane landed at a small airport in Sacramento on Monday, the second such plane in three days to arrive in the California capital from an airfield in New Mexico.

The group of about 20 immigrants, who said they were mainly from Venezuela, landed just before 10:30 a.m. Pacific time and were taken to a room at Sacramento Executive Airport to meet with officials from the California Department of Justice. One of the migrants, David Mata, 28, said he came to the United States from Venezuela about two weeks ago looking for work. Mr. Mata said he did not know who arranged his trip to Sacramento, but whoever did it had paid for it in full.

Another group of migrants arrived Friday at another Sacramento airport aboard the same private plane. California authorities said those migrants were carrying documents indicating their trip had been “managed by the Florida Division of Emergency Management” and its contractor, Florida-based Vertol Systems Company.

It was not immediately clear if the group that arrived Monday had similar documents, but a state Justice Department official said it appeared the same company and the state of Florida were involved.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and state attorney general Rob Bonta, both Democrats, said they believed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican running for president, had arranged Friday’s flight.

So far, DeSantis has not acknowledged that Florida was responsible, although details of the incident, including the apparent involvement of Vertol, a private defense and air services contractor, reflect an operation last fall, when the governor sent two planeloads of migrants. from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

On Monday, a Texas county sheriff announced he was recommending that prosecutors file criminal charges related to the Martha’s Vineyard flights, though he said nothing about who should be charged.

The migrants who flew to California on Friday began their journey at a shelter in El Paso and from there were taken to a municipal airport about 100 miles away in New Mexico. After they arrived in Sacramento, they were dropped off outside a church building.

Over the weekend, Newsom and other California officials accused Vertol of transporting the group under a false promise of work if the migrants agreed to be taken to California. Bonta said California state investigators would look into whether to file criminal or civil charges against whoever was involved in moving the migrants, calling the action “morally bankrupt.”

The migrants who arrived Monday, who said their journey had also started in El Paso, were flown to Sacramento from the same airport in New Mexico, according to flight tracking website FlightAware. (It had been a long trip. Around lunchtime, Steven Thompson, 62, the owner of a flight school at Sacramento Executive Airport, ordered three Little Caesars pizzas for the migrants. The group could be heard clapping and cheering when the food arrived).

Wilkendri Rodríguez, 23, said in an interview at the airport that two men and two women approached him at an El Paso shelter and asked if he wanted to go to California. Rodríguez, who had survived a perilous journey through the jungle to reach Texas from Venezuela, said he had enthusiastically agreed.

“It is something that you do not wish on others, because it is too much, a lot of death,” Rodríguez said of his trip to the United States. He said that he was extorted by criminal gangs during the journey.

He said the people who offered him the flight to California told him they could help him find a job.

“I don’t know what your motivation is for organizing these trips,” he said in Spanish. “I don’t know if he is a politician or part of the government. They didn’t tell us anything.”

Mr. Rodríguez added that people told him: “If you want to leave, go or stay. No one is obligated.”

Representatives for Mr. DeSantis have not responded to requests for comment. Neither has the Florida Division of Emergency Management, which is in charge of the state’s taxpayer-funded program to transport immigrants from the southern border to other areas of the United States. Mr. DeSantis appeared on a Fox News radio show Monday morning, but did not discuss the immigrants who had mysteriously turned up in Sacramento.

Representatives for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have said they were not involved in the trips to California.

If Mr. DeSantis is indeed responsible for the latest flights, they offer a taste of how he can use the power of his position to help his presidential campaign. He is scheduled to hold a fundraiser in Sacramento on June 19, part of a tour of California to meet with wealthy donors.

On the campaign trail, he frequently invokes the migrant flights he sent to “beautiful” Martha’s Vineyard, usually to the applause of his audience, and claims that under President Biden, the nation’s southern border has “collapsed.”

“We have stood up against illegal immigration by banning sanctuary cities, cracking down on people smuggling, deploying troops to help at the southern border and even sending illegal immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard,” DeSantis said last week at a rally in outside of Des Moines.

On Monday, Newsom, who has repeatedly clashed with DeSantis, hit back at his Florida counterpart on Twitter calling him “pathetic” and suggesting the flights could result in “kidnapping charges.”

Mr. DeSantis has said he is trying to wake up residents of Democratic cities and states about the border crisis by bringing migrants to their doors. Mr. Abbott from Texas has also sent busloads of immigrants to northern cities. Mayor Eric Adams of New York City, where tens of thousands of asylum seekers have ended up since last spring, described his city as “destroyed by the immigration crisis,” drawing criticism from other Democrats.

Early last month, the federal government ended Title 42, a pandemic-era policy implemented by former President Donald J. Trump that allowed immigration officials to quickly remove people crossing the border from Mexico. More recently, the Biden administration has enacted new limits on who can claim asylum in the United States.

The surge of immigrants in recent months has also left other cities like Washington, Chicago and Denver struggling to accommodate them and provide them with social services.

The Martha’s Vineyard flights brought 49 migrants, mostly Venezuelans, from San Antonio to the island in September. Vertol’s contractors gave the migrants a brochure, written in English and Spanish, that suggested help would be waiting for them upon their arrival in Massachusetts. Among the promised benefits was assistance in finding work, housing, food and clothing. But no one on Martha’s Vineyard knew they were coming, prompting the migrants to say they had been lied to.

The alleged hoax prompted a series of lawsuits and investigations against Florida and its contractors, including a federal immigrant class action lawsuit and a criminal investigation by Bexar County, Texas, Sheriff Javier Salazar, a Democrat whose jurisdiction includes San Antonio.

In a statement released Monday, the sheriff’s office said it believed the “felony and misdemeanor charges of unlawful restraint” were justified, though it did not name the people it believed should be charged. “At this time, the case is being reviewed by the prosecutor’s office,” the statement said. Prosecutors will likely be several weeks away from making a decision.

Those earlier flights also prompted a state lawsuit by state Sen. Jason Pizzo of Florida, a Democrat who argued, among other claims, that Florida had violated existing state law by transporting immigrants it found in Texas instead of Florida.

In response, Mr. DeSantis called state legislators into a special session in February, where they passed a new law to allow Florida to transport immigrants from anywhere within the United States. Later, the Legislature authorized $12 million for the program as part of the new state law against undocumented immigrants.

Mr. Pizzo agreed to dismiss her lawsuit after the new law was passed. But in an interview Monday, he said he believed the sole purpose of resuming the flights was to further DeSantis’s political ambitions.

“This goes beyond the theater,” Pizzo said. “These are not bad people, they are not criminals, they are refugees and asylum seekers.”

Florida spent more than $1.5 million on the migrant flight program last year. Martha’s Vineyard flights cost $615,000. That same month, the state paid Vertol $950,000 for flights that were supposed to go to Delaware and Illinois, state records show. But those flights never happened.

Other records showed that Mr. DeSantis’ top aides were intimately involved in planning the flights to Martha’s Vineyard, even traveling to San Antonio to help organize them.

Meanwhile, recruiters have been scouring the streets of El Paso, according to interviews with migrants at a shelter near the international bridge to Mexico.

Maria Cova, a 42-year-old immigrant from Venezuela, said Monday she was outside the shelter at Sacred Heart Church last week when a woman approached her and offered her a free ride to California. The woman did not give her name or say who she worked for; Ms. Cova said that she turned her down because she was planning to travel to Chicago. Still, the woman persisted, saying she could help move Ms. Cova’s immigration court date to California.

“He told me we didn’t have to worry about a thing, that he would take us to California for free,” Ms. Cova recalled. “She was very friendly, a little too friendly, I thought.”

“Something about her,” he added, “didn’t feel right.”

Ivan Pierre Aguirre contributed reporting from El Paso.