Florida officials are facing potential legal peril over GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis’s migrant relocation moves.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D) and Bexar County (Texas) Sheriff Javier Salazar, whose jurisdiction encompasses San Antonio, are focusing their criminal and civil investigations on whether migrants were lured onto flights under false pretenses.
Salazar’s office filed charges with the local district attorney Monday after a nine-month investigation into a Florida-run operation that transported 49 migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. Bonta announced his own investigation over the weekend.
“I think deception is a key part of what’s happened here,” he told The Hill.
Both those investigations orbit DeSantis, former President Trump’s leading competitor for the 2024 GOP nomination, whose hard-line stance on immigration is a keystone of his campaign.
“Gov. DeSantis is abusing Florida taxpayer dollars. We welcome the federal government or other states to help us challenge these dangerous political stunts,” said Florida Rep. Darren Soto (D).
After remaining uncharacteristically quiet on the issue for days, DeSantis’s office Tuesday took ownership of the latest flights, which carried migrants from Texas to Sacramento, Calif.
“From left-leaning mayors in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, Colorado, the relocation of those illegally crossing the United States border is not new,” division of emergency management spokesperson Alecia Collins said in a statement. “But suddenly, when Florida sends illegal aliens to a sanctuary city, it’s false imprisonment and kidnapping.”
Collins’s statement and a video released by DeSantis’s office characterized the flights as voluntary — a rare defensive move from the Republican presidential candidate — amid increasingly vocal challenges from the West.
Bonta said he’s “glad the state of Florida is accepting blame for what they’ve done.”
“They have no choice but to – all the evidence pointed that way. It was obvious that it was them. They have a $10 [million] to $12 million budget outlay to pay for this program.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) panned DeSantis for the flights in a tweet Monday, calling him a “small, pathetic man” and floating the idea of leveling kidnapping charges over the flights.
At a Wednesday roundtable event on the border in Arizona, DeSantis declined to address either the migrant flights or Newsom’s criticism, but did assail so-called “sanctuary” cities and states on immigration.
“That’s the policies that they’ve staken out,” he said. “And then what? When they have to deal with some of the fruits of that, they all of a sudden become very, very upset about that.”
Bonta, who met Saturday with a group of migrants from the flights, said his investigation would cast a wide net.
“Everyone involved, anyone involved in the scheme and the movement of the 36 asylum seekers from El Paso to Sacramento with New Mexico in between, and that includes the state of Florida and its employees who are involved, and that includes any private entity,” he said.
Though Bonta and Newsom are the highest-profile Democrats to raise criminal charges as a possible counterpunch to migrant relocations, Salazar has for months been pursuing an investigation into the first Florida-related migrant flight.
“[DeSantis] took these people from my hometown of San Antonio. So, San Antonio was always going to have some kind of jurisdiction because of that, and the sheriff indicated a few months ago that he was going to do a full investigation,” said Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas).
“Our district attorney, I believe, will take a close look at [the investigation,] and if DeSantis and his crew committed what they’re accused of committing, then the district attorney will prosecute him.”
According to Salazar’s office, the recommended charges include several counts of unlawful restraint, some of which are misdemeanors and others felonies.
Gerardo Menchaca, an immigration lawyer in San Antonio who has advised some of the migrants who boarded the flights, said he believes the alleged deception amounts to kidnapping.
“It’s kidnapping if you lie to somebody to get them in the car with you and then take them to a place where it’s totally different than what you told them it was going to be,” he said.
“These people were told, ‘Come on, and we’re going to get you a job.’ And then there’s an allegation of somebody being told, ‘We’ll expedite your work permit.’ So that is kidnapping, and also, there’s minors involved, so minors can’t even consent.”
Reactions from Bexar County and California stand in contrast to those of some big-city mayors including New York City’s Eric Adams (D), who condemned the practice of shipping migrants north but also butted heads with the Biden administration over funding for new arrivals.
“Whether it’s [former Chicago Mayor] Lori Lightfoot or Eric Adams, they turn around and say, ‘This is a stunt’ and then they say ‘We can’t take any more,'” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist.
“And when they say they can’t take any more, that’s when the Western Governors jump in. The Western Governors weren’t gonna say anything. This is their way of trying to stop the bleeding by turning the subject back on the Republicans, but when you look at the polling, more Americans are waking up.”
Polls on immigration issues generally show a deep partisan divide, though key polls have found large majorities of Americans disapprove of President Biden’s handling of the issue.
Many Democrats, though, push back on the Republican idea that disapproval of Biden’s handling of immigration equates to approval of hard-line policies such as migrant relocations.
“Democrats are rightly taking a stand on this because it’s disgusting,” said Kristian Ramos, a Democratic strategist.
“What’s particularly stupid about all of this is, in a general election, Democrats, moderate Democrats and independents are solidly pro-immigrant, so once the general election rolls around for these Republican candidates, they’re going to stop talking about this stuff.”
—Updated at 4:23 p.m.