Immigration and border security politics are helping define Florida governor Ron DeSantis' campaign for president. At a Monday appearance in the border city of Eagle Pass, Texas, DeSantis pledged to deputize state and local law enforcement to carry out federal immigration policy. The Florida Republican even proposed authorizing deadly force to stop people from damaging border walls and barriers to get into the U.S.
He also continued skewering "sanctuary cities" — cities whose municipal laws tend to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation or prosecution despite federal immigration law.
The White House hopeful said if elected he would use the powers of the federal government to "turn the screws" on those areas to force them to comply with immigration laws.
This all leads to a program DeSantis continues to take credit for: The transport of asylum-seeking migrants to cities where Democrats are in charge, often with no notice to the cities and little in the way of help given to the migrants being dropped off.
Three weeks ago, his administration oversaw another transport of migrants from El Paso, Texas to Sacramento, California.
This is the second set of flights in less than a year that moved asylum seeking migrants from a red border state to a blue state. The program aims to make a heated political point about the U.S. immigration system and the border states bearing the front end of the burden. Right now there is only one Southern border state lead by a Republican governor — Texas.
But immigrant rights advocates and officials in the states where the migrants landed say the trips were a cruel stunt, designed to gin up a political base. Some even question their legality.
Scripps News national correspondent John Mone spoke with a number of migrants approached with the offer of a free trip, who told him there was a blizzard of promises but that the reality was just a mirage.
Migrants speaking with Scripps News said recruiters offered them free hotel stays, jobs, assistance in finding immigration attorneys and a free trip to California. In the end, they say the promises that enticed them onto the plane were false.
Richard is a 30-year-old Venezuelan father of four who says he now lives in fear.
"Yes, I'm afraid," he said in Spanish. "I didn't even want to go outside of where I'm staying."
Scripps News is not showing his face or giving his last name to protect his identity, as he fears retaliation from the people who claimed that they were going to help him.
Along with thousands of other Venezuelans, Richard and his family arrived in El Paso, Texas more than a month ago through Mexico, seeking asylum from an oppressive regime, as well as safety and opportunity in the United States.
U.S. immigration authorities granted him and his family humanitarian parole into the country as he awaits his asylum plea. He had a notice to appear for his asylum hearing.
Richard told us about a woman and two men who approached him outside of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church shelter in El Paso in early June.
"And she offers me to go to California. That they are going to help me change my immigration appointment for the immigration process," Richard said.
They offered work and hotel stays, Richard said. All he had to do was accept a trip to California.
In June, 36 other migrants were flown to Sacramento ,on flights occurring June 2 and June 5. The California attorney general said those he spoke with told him they were promised work that never materialized.
Richard says he heard the same deal.
"They told me they'd call around 5 p.m. to take us to the hotel," he added.
Richard said one of the women who led the effort was a Puerto Rican woman named "Miranda." In all, Scripps News spoke with six migrants who identified the woman known as Miranda, and said she approached them with similar promises.
Richard says the people who approached him carried wads of cash and bought his family luggage at nearby shops.
He says "Miranda" and her associates drove him and his family to a motel in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
The motel's owner operator told us over that weekend a large block of rooms was booked for roughly three dozen migrants.
The state of Florida took credit for chartering planes to fly migrants — mostly Venezuelan and Colombian — to Catholic services in Sacramento on June 2 and June 5, producing its own video as evidence the trip was consensual.
Video shows migrants signing waivers. Portions have no audio. The first section appears to show a form in Spanish and then people are seen signing forms, but it is unclear in what language those are written.
Florida says it uses three contractors — ARS Global Emergency Management, Gardaworld Federal Services and Vertol Systems in what it calls its "unauthorized alien transport program," for which lawmakers have so far authorized $12 million. ARS Global, which is headquartered north of Houston, did acknowledge it has a contract with Florida and says it carries out services with "compassion and expediency."
But when Scripps News reached out to these companies, none of them confirmed or denied any involvement with the operation of these particular flights or the recruiting activity that brought the migrants we spoke to, to California.
Scripps News could not confirm whether Miranda or her associates were working for any of these contractors.
"But if there's a policy to have an open border, then I think the sanctuary cities should be the ones to bear that," Gov. DeSantis said on a campaign trip to Arizona earlier in June.
The federal government says the border is not open and illegal crossings have decreased since it enacted stricter immigration measures after May 12.
This marks the second time Florida taxpayers have paid for flying migrants, who first crossed into Texas, to a so-called sanctuary city.
In September of 2022, recruiters from Florida gathered a group of migrants who said they heard the same kinds of promises from a San Antonio, Texas shelter and flew them unannounced to Martha's Vineyard, Massaschusetts.
The Bexar County Texas sheriff has recommended criminal charges of unlawful restraint to the local district attorney. The DA's office says the charges are under review and has not yet decided to prosecute a case.
The DeSantis administration's latest actions spurred outrage from California officials, but DeSantis' explanation stands in contradiction to accounts Scripps News gathered from migrants themselves.
DeSantis claims the migrants consented to the trips and knowingly signed these waivers. Richard tells a different story.
"Nothing in Spanish," Richard said. "English only. I didn't understand anything I was going to sign. I mean, how will I understand something I'm not understanding."
Richard told us he and others were coerced to sign consent forms they could not understand.
"I studied tax law and finance in my country," Gadiel said outside of the church shelter in El Paso.
Scripps News is only identifying this Venezuelan man because he also feared for his safety. He added recruiters gave him the same set of promises and put forth a form to sign written only in English.
He ultimately opted not to sign.
"If I don't have a lawyer, I'm not going to sign a paper when I can't speak English," Gadiel said.
Scripps News obtained fuel receipts for a twin propeller DeHavilland Dash-8 aircraft. They show re-fueling on two occasions from Deming, new Mexico's municipal airport. Flight records show the same plane traveled from Deming to Sacramento on June 2 and June 5.
The airport manager shared photos of the second flight of migrants on June 5, saying they were led into the plane by people speaking English.
"And you can tell they were other than Americans," Deming, New Mexico airport manager Robert Benavidez said. "So I filled up the airplane and they went in. The airplane took off and left. And I asked the administrative gal where they were going. They said, Sacramento."
California's attorney general says based on "documentation purporting to be from the government of the state of Florida," his office obtained from migrants dropped off in Sacramento, Florida-based Vertol Systems coordinated the flights. California cited an ongoing investigation as a reason to reject our request to see the document.
At the motel where Miranda and her associates put up the migrants before the flight, Richard says he grew suspicious of their motives.
"One hour later, the lady calls me and says, 'Please, do not leave the hotel. You will stay there until Wednesday, and I will pay you every day, if possible, until Saturday.'"
He adds Miranda also discouraged him from leaving even when he insisted. He then got a text message which deepened his fears.
"They arrived in California at 2:30, three hours later, they call me and tell me not to come, that this is a fraud."
A fellow migrant who accepted the June 2 flight to Sacramento told him that the promises made were not kept and he should back out.
On June 2, that group ended up on the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento's doorstep. The diocese told Scripps News it received zero notice from the state of Florida that migrants would arrive.
Richard says he begged to be returned to El Paso. A driver hired to help transport Richard's group agreed to take Richard and his family back.
Richard said he then changed his mind about the offer.
"When I saw that things didn't add up, when I saw those things, when I saw the cash, when I saw that in front of me, they never spoke in Spanish, never, always in English, with codes."
When the DeSantis administration shared its own video with us, officials told us the trips were voluntary and equated them to El Paso's busing program which transported thousands of migrants to other U.S. cities. El Paso ended its own busing in October of 2022.
Aid workers there say that's a flawed comparison.
"It's really concerning because you have people that are already traumatized, people that have been on this long journey to try and get to the U.S.," Melissa Lopez, director of El Paso Diocese Migrant and Refugee Services said. "They arrive and they're met with false promises and false information about what their future looks like. And unfortunately, this is a pattern that's repeating itself."
Before, when El Paso bused migrants out to relieve the strain on services, officials coordinated with refugee organizations in other cities.
The congresswoman who represents El Paso tells Scripps News there should be a criminal investigation.
"We know, in fact, that Texas law enforcement has identified this as unlawful behavior," Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said. "We know that the state of California is also looking into it. But I do think the federal government also needs to look into what I consider unlawful and outrageous behavior."
A Boston-based civil rights group that represents people from the first migrant trip to Massachusetts says the recruiting tactics used were similar.
"They were led to believe that there would be services available to them on the other side at their destination," Oren Sellston of Lawyers for Civil Rights said in an interview. "Again, very similar to our Martha's Vineyard clients. And yet when they arrived in Sacramento, they were essentially abandoned at the doorstep of a church."
Richard and his family have relocated to a different city and had a lawyer change his immigration court appointment.
"It was a hoax. Fully. It was a deception because they did promise me, and to many of my countrymen they promised work, changing the appointment, full hotel stay, that is, for one or two months."
California's attorney general is now asking that Florida turn over its records of the trips, as well as information on any contractors involved. He says there's an ongoing criminal investigation of the flights to see if there was any wrongdoing.
The Bexar County sheriff also met with California's governor to discuss details of the criminal case his office investigated in a similar incident in September of last year.
We asked Florida's Division of Emergency Management for copies of its video release with the audio that was silenced, we have requested copies of the consent forms from the agency, and we also posed questions to the agency and the office of Florida's governor about the people who approached the migrants regarding these flights. We have not yet heard replies.
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