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Tampa Bay Times

DeSantis so far quiet about migrant flights to California

By Ana Ceballos,

The offices of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento are seen in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, June 5, 2023. Sixteen migrants from Venezuela and Colombia were brought to the diocese's offices on Friday, June 2, 2023, after being flown from Texas to Sacramento. [ TRAN NGUYEN | AP ]

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a presidential candidate who proudly touts a hardline immigration stance, is suddenly mum as California officials say they are investigating the circumstances by which dozens of South American migrants were flown to California, purportedly by the state of Florida.

DeSantis has not confirmed or denied the state’s involvement with the flights, the first of which arrived in Sacramento on Friday. California officials said the 16 migrants who came off the plane were carrying documents that indicated they were transported through a program run by Florida’s state government.

A second flight carrying about 20 migrants landed in Sacramento Monday afternoon carrying the same documents indicating their travel had been administered by the Florida Division of Emergency Management and its contractor, Vertol Systems Co., a spokesperson for the California Attorney General’s Office told the Miami Herald.

“While this is still under investigation, we can confirm these individuals were in possession of documentation purporting to be from the government of the State of Florida,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement issued by his office over the weekend. “While we continue to collect evidence, I want to say this very clearly: State-sanctioned kidnapping is not a public policy choice, it is immoral and disgusting.”

Sacramento is the state capital of California, one of the country’s most progressive states. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who frequently spars with DeSantis, called his Florida Republican counterpart a “small, pathetic man.”

“This isn’t Martha’s Vineyard,” he tweeted on Monday.

The silence from the governor and his administration is in stark contrast to the communications strategy deployed by DeSantis last fall when Florida flew 49 South American migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard.

Last September, DeSantis’ office provided exclusive footage to Fox News that was aired on a nighttime, prime-time show, showing migrants disembarking from planes at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. And in what has become routine for the governor, he defended his efforts by publicly and loudly lashing out at his critics — using the episode to promote his conservative agenda while campaigning for reelection.

This time around, DeSantis is uncharacteristically quiet, even as he makes immigration a prominent theme of his nascent presidential campaign. He has also tried to draw attention to the southern border by sending state resources to Texas.

On Monday morning, during an interview with Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade, DeSantis was not asked about Friday’s Sacramento flight, and DeSantis did not mention it.

DeSantis’ political team has made no mention of the event in their usually active social media accounts. Instead, they have been focused on promoting the governor’s campaign visits in the early nominating states of Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire. DeSantis has a campaign fundraiser scheduled in Sacramento on June 19.

Meanwhile, DeSantis’ critics are attacking the flights as irresponsible.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters at a press briefing on Monday that the administration was “in close touch with state officials” in California and referred questions regarding details of the investigation to them. But she referred to the transport of migrants around the country without coordinating with state or federal officials as “dangerous and unacceptable.”

“I’ve said it many times from here, repeatedly, from this podium, that busing or flying migrants around the country without any coordination with the federal government — we’ve talked about this, state or local officials as well — is dangerous and unacceptable,” Jean-Pierre said. “And we’ll continue to be very, very clear about that. It is dangerous and unacceptable because you’re putting peoples’ lives at risk. And it’s dangerous and unacceptable because you’re actually putting a lot of pressure on these state and local areas.”

An official with the Department of Homeland Security also confirmed that the agency was in touch with Newsom’s office, helping them navigate options for federal assistance.

Rachel Self, an attorney for the Martha’s Vineyard migrants, told the Miami Herald on Monday that the governor appears to be relaunching his migrant relocation program eight months after the Martha’s Vineyard flights as a “publicity boost” to help his presidential candidacy.

“The governor of Florida has demonstrated time and again that he is willing to use the most vulnerable among us to score cheap political points,” Self said.

Revamped relaunch

DeSantis’ migrant relocation program was designed to remove “unauthorized aliens” from Florida, though the state has exclusively operated out of Texas to recruit and transport migrants to Democratic-leaning states. The state has indicated that the program is voluntary for migrants to participate in, and according to internal documents, the state refers to the program as a “humanitarian operation.”

Migrants are free to travel throughout the United States once they are released from federal custody, vetted by the Department of Homeland Security and assigned a hearing date for processing.

But whether migrants are lied to, misled or trafficked is a matter that would be up to the Justice Department to investigate. Department officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

DeSantis had defended the program as an attempt to draw attention to the border crisis in response to Biden’s policies. The taxpayer-funded program, however, has led to several lawsuits, including from migrants who say they were tricked into getting on the planes to Martha’s Vineyard, and a criminal investigation by the Bexar County sheriff in Texas.

DeSantis’ public safety czar, Larry Keefe, was also found to have used a private email address with the alias “Clarice Starling” — a reference to the Hannibal Lecter serial killer novels — to help Vertol Systems, his former client, win the state contract to operate the program.

Amid the controversies and in the face of lawsuits, DeSantis asked the Republican-led Legislature to transfer management of the migrant relocation program from the Florida Department of Transportation to the Division of Emergency Management Services in February.

In May, the state agency prepared to relaunch the revamped $12 million program and selected three companies to carry out its mission. But the agency did not respond to requests for comment on whether it was behind the California flight or whether flights have resumed.

The Division of Emergency Management has yet to provide copies of the contracts.

Because the contracts have yet to be made available, the state has not said where the migrants are who will be voluntarily transported and to what destination.

Sacramento Bee reporter Michael McGough contributed to this report.

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