Democratic leaders in California and Texas urged the Justice Department on Thursday to investigate a Florida program that took asylum seekers in Texas and sent them without apparent notice to Martha’s Vineyard and Sacramento.
In a letter that called the state-funded initiative “an ongoing scheme” that appeared to be driven by the Republican governor of Florida and based on a deception, Governor Gavin Newsom of California; the state attorney general, Rob Bonta; and the sheriff of Bexar County in Texas, Javier Salazar, requested an examination of the Florida program for possible violations of federal law.
“It is unjustifiable to use people as political props by persuading them to travel to another state based on false or deceptive representations,” the officials wrote in the letter to Merrick B. Garland, the U.S. attorney general.
While the Democratic leaders acknowledged that non-governmental organizations and local officials sent migrants from border states to other US destinations, they argued that the Florida program was different because it deceived people by promising them jobs and shelter without providing such offers. In Sacramento and Martha’s Vineyard, immigrants arrived on the doorsteps of local churches and religious organizations that did not expect guests.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, Republicans who have claimed responsibility for sending migrants to Democratic-led states, said the individuals volunteered to travel elsewhere. They also framed the moves as a protest against President Biden’s border policies, and argued that Democratic cities and states that have declared themselves sanctuaries against immigration enforcement should welcome migrants.
Democratic leaders, including Mr. Bonta and Mr. Newsom, in turn denounced the transfers as a partisan and shameless political stunt. Over the past year, Mr. Newsom has attacked Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Abbott over their policies on abortion, guns and immigration, and encouraged other Democrats to call out Republican-led states. The California governor flew to Idaho this week to rally Democratic voters.
Mr. DeSantis did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the call for a federal investigation. A spokesman for Mr. Newsom said Mr. Garland’s office had not yet responded to Thursday’s request.
The letter Thursday focused on the moves signed by the Florida-funded “Unauthorized Alien Transportation Program,” which has claimed responsibility for relocating about 100 migrants so far. The program transported far fewer people than Texas, but operated more stealthily by dropping off migrants without warning.
Last month, the Florida program paid for two planes of Latin American migrants to fly to Sacramento, prompting civil and criminal investigations by the California Department of Justice. After several of the migrants said they took the flight because a program contractor had promised them jobs and housing before leaving them destitute, Mr. Newsom suggested that “kidnapping” charges be brought against Mr. DeSantis, who is running for president . .
A similar relocation last September of several dozen Latin American migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, a liberal enclave in Massachusetts, prompted an investigation in Texas by Sheriff Salazar. He also determined that false promises of housing, education and employment were made. A referral for possible criminal prosecution in that case is pending with the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office, Thursday’s letter said.
Legal analysts say any civil or criminal prosecution could be difficult to enforce, and would likely turn on whether the migrants were tricked into their relocations. Many of those who disembarked in California and Massachusetts carried documents indicating that they agreed to be transported.
The Texas sheriff and the California authorities claimed that federal officials should get involved because the Florida program crossed state lines.
“While separate investigations into possible violations of state laws remain active, the US Department of Justice (USDOJ) has a unique ability to investigate cases where, as here, the scheme stretches from Massachusetts to California,” the letter said.