Authorities in California are pointing the finger at Ron DeSantis for dumping a group of migrants at a Sacramento church in circumstances similar to a stunt orchestrated by Florida’s rightwing Republican governor last year in Martha’s Vineyard.
Rob Bonta, California’s attorney general, said in a statement that 16 South Americans abandoned outside the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento on Friday were “in possession of documentation purporting to be from the state of Florida”, and may have been duped into boarding charter flights via New Mexico after entering the US in Texas.
He said Florida was guilty of “state-sanctioned kidnapping” if it was found to be behind the flights, which the documents reportedly show were operated by the Vertol Systems Co, the same contractor hired last year by Florida’s department of emergency management to move migrants from Texas to Massachusetts for $1.6m.
“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,” Bonta said in the statement, adding that he was “evaluating” whether violations of civil or criminal law had taken place.
Lawyers for the mostly Venezuelan migrants caught up in DeSantis’s stunt last September were on the ground in Sacramento on Monday, and say the circumstances are nearly identical, with the group having been promised accommodation, jobs and clothing that never materialized, and with no advance notice to social services.
“We’re trying to establish what exactly they were told when they boarded the flights,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director of Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights.
“There are a number of needs people have when they’re abandoned like this, food and shelter, but also legal assistance, and there needs to be immediate legal action to ensure their federal immigration proceedings are not compromised by this political stunt.
“This kind of conduct is reprehensible, morally repugnant and also illegal. To the extent the individuals flown to California had the same kind of fraud and misrepresentation visited upon them that we saw with our Martha’s Vineyard clients, we fully intend to hold Governor DeSantis and his co-conspirators accountable in a court of law.”
The community group Sacramento area congregations together (ACT) has been assisting the migrants, who are mostly Colombian and Venezuelan, with immediate needs. Cecilia Flores, spokesperson for ACT, said the group was taken to the church by bus and dumped there.
“They started out, ‘What city is this? What state are we in?’” Flores told CNN.
“According to them, they they got off of the bus, the person who was driving rang the doorbell of the building and told them they would be right back, and the bus pulled away and never came back.
“One of the migrants attempted to reach them because they did have a contact number. They said that the person told them they’ll be right there to get you, never specifying who was coming to get them. They continued to try to reach this person [but] their cellphone no longer was working.”
The allegation of deceit mirrors that of the Martha’s Vineyard episode, in which a former US army medic, Perla Huerta, was allegedly hired to lure migrants onto planes in Texas chartered by the DeSantis administration to protest Joe Biden’s immigration policies.
According to several of the migrants, Huerta showed up at a McDonald’s in San Antonio, offering gift cards and promising shelter and jobs in Boston, before the group was dumped without notice in the affluent community.
Lawyers for the migrants subsequently filed a lawsuit.
Rightwinger DeSantis, the leading challenger to Donald Trump for the Republican 2024 presidential nomination, has ramped up his anti-immigrant rhetoric in recent months, and earlier this year persuaded the Florida legislature to approve an expansion to his “unauthorized alien transport program” to Democrat-led cities and states.
Supporters have lauded the program, some selling souvenirs such as T-shirts, drinks glasses and car decals bearing the mocking maxim “DeSantis Airlines: Bringing the border to you”.
DeSantis’s media team did not respond to a request from the Guardian for comment.
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