Migrants say Florida contractors pushed to get them to board planes to California

For the record:
10:30 a.m. June 12, 2023: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that migrants who were flown to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in 2022 by the state of Florida had been recruited in Del Río, Texas. They were recruited in San Antonio. It also said Imelda Maynard was with Catholic Charities of Southern New Mexico; she is director of legal services at Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services Inc.

María traveled more than 2,800 miles from Venezuela to reach the United States in early May. Once crossing the border, however, she made it only four blocks, to a shelter at Sacred Heart Church in downtown El Paso.

Like many asylum seekers released on parole by Customs and Border Protection, she had no money to pay for a plane or bus ticket, she said. She slept in the church shelter, then in the alley outside, for three weeks, until a woman approached and said she would fly María on a private plane to California.

“She said I should go, that there were people there to receive us who would give us lodging, that they would help us … get our [immigration] papers in order,” said María, who asked to be identified only by her first name, out of fear of repercussions from the woman.

What María didn’t know was that the woman was a contractor hired by the administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

María had found herself in the center of a political storm. Migrant flights and the national attention they've drawn are yet another chapter in the political fight over the border, with California officials vowing to investigate whether travelers were misled and the Florida governor doubling down on hard-line policies and a portrayal of himself as a culture warrior.

The contractor, along with another woman and two men, spent the afternoon walking around the church trying to recruit migrants like María to board a charter flight to California. María and other migrants said the contractors did not identify themselves beyond saying they were there to “help the migrants.”

Read more: Florida says it's responsible for transporting migrants to Sacramento

Over two days, the contractors managed to recruit 16 migrants for a flight June 2 and 20 for a flight June 5 — whom they drove two hours west to a small airport in New Mexico for the trips to Sacramento.

A group of migrants in the alley outside the makeshift migrant shelter at Sacred Heart Church in El Paso
Migrants stand in the alley outside Sacred Heart Church's shelter Friday. Some choose to sleep outside the El Paso church rather than in its shelter. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre / For The Times)

It was a gambit by DeSantis that brought attention to his recently launched presidential bid, focused on denouncing "wokeness" and attacking California and other states over “sanctuary city” policies.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom quickly condemned the flights and said his administration was looking into whether they "violated any criminal laws, including kidnapping.”

In an interview Saturday, he said, “You may not like [President] Biden’s border policies, you may have major criticisms about the asylum system in this country, but how dare you? How dare you treat other human beings this way?”

Read more: A dictator’s daughter runs for president, unleashing memories of Guatemala’s dark past

DeSantis and his spokespeople have defended the flights, arguing that migrants boarded them voluntarily. DeSantis organized a similar protest flight in 2022, recruiting migrants in San Antonio to fly to Martha's Vineyard, Mass. Despite widespread condemnation and an ongoing criminal investigation over whether those migrants were misled, the Florida legislature this year allocated $12 million that can be used for such flights. DeSantis' office did not respond to a request for comment.

Speaking Wednesday from Arizona, near the border with Mexico, he decried what he called "open border" policies and said, "I think the sanctuary jurisdictions should be the ones that have to bear that.”

In El Paso, three migrants who were approached by the contractors but decided not to go with them said the offers were vague and suspicious. They said that though the contractors appeared friendly, they pushed aggressively for migrants to board flights and insisted on seeing the documents border agents had given them.

Venezuelan Genesis Rodriguez applies makeup after waking as people sleep around her outside a church.
Venezuelan migrant Genesis Rodriguez applies makeup after waking at the campsite outside Sacred Heart Church in downtown El Paso earlier this month. (Andres Leighton / Associated Press)

When a Venezuelan woman told the contractors she didn’t want to go to California but was trying to get to New York, one told her that “people in California” would book her flights to New York once she landed, she said. The woman asked that her name not be used because she was unsure of the contractors' identities and feared repercussions if they returned. Other migrants who turned down the contractors expressed similar fears.

María said the contractor who talked to her was insistent and kept telling her that she should board the plane. When María said no, because she wanted to stay in El Paso to make her court date, the contractor said she would “change her date" for her.

Read more: DeSantis defends flying migrants to California

María worried that the mysterious contractors were drug traffickers — why else would they have a private plane? The contractor seemed to sense her nervousness.

“She told us not to be afraid — that she didn’t want to steal our hearts or our organs or anything,” María said.

Despite the woman continuing to push her to get on the plane, María turned her down. But she watched in anxiety as one of her friends went.

Imelda Maynard, director of legal services at Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services Inc., met with a family who chose to go with the contractors. She says the family — now clients of her organization — were offered help finding housing and jobs. The husband, wife and four young children on June 1 were driven in a rented van about two hours into New Mexico, where the contractors booked them rooms in a Super 8 motel and left.

Read more: Second plane carrying migrants lands in California, with officials blaming Florida

According to Maynard, while the contractors reappeared the next morning to take some of the migrants to a private plane, they seemed unsure whether the family could travel with children and told the father to wait. Maynard says her clients waited in the motel until June 4, when one of the contractors suggested the father could fly alone the next day, and his family could join him later. The family asked instead to go back to El Paso. They were allowed to leave.

Maynard said the father told her his family had been treated well by the contractors; they had been fed and comfortably housed. Nonetheless, he was nervous about them coming to look for his family and stayed on the lookout. He was concerned that the contractors might have been drug traffickers.

Migrants with bedding wake up at a campsite outside a church.
Migrants wake up at a campsite outside Sacred Heart Church in downtown El Paso on May 9. (Andres Leighton / Associated Press)

María's friend who had gone with the contractors called her from California. The friend said the contractor had driven them about two hours to a motel before returning the next day to take them to the airport, where, as promised, a private plane was waiting, according to María.

María said her friend told her that police interviewed the migrants as soon as they got off their June 2 flight, and that she and the others had met the governor of California. While confused at what was happening, the friend told María that the flight had been “normal,” and they’d arrived in California safely, as promised. María's friend could not be reached to verify her experience.

Read more: Newsom threatens DeSantis with kidnapping charges after migrants flown to Sacramento

Newsom described his meeting June 3 with the migrants who were on that first flight. His wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a fluent Spanish speaker, translated for him, the governor said by phone. Venezuelan migrants told of their brutal journey — some said they had seen migrants lynched for refusing to pay smugglers; others had seen travelers shot on a train; one woman said she had been threatened with rape.

Newsom said he was upset by the fact that DeSantis would “use them as pawns” after everything they'd been through. “I was crawling out of my skin for two days,” he said. “The fact that DeSantis put together the news conference in Arizona, days after he did this … it's just a manifestation of the worst of the worst of humanity.”

Newsom says when he met with the migrants, they were upbeat.

“Everyone was generous, everyone was smiling, and everyone was happy. Because they felt safe. But they didn't know they were being played,” the governor said. He noted that it became clear the migrants hadn’t understood what they were consenting to when one asked, “What is Sacramento?”

“They don't know who Ron DeSantis is. They didn't even know what Sacramento was,” Newsom said. “They didn’t know they were pawns. They didn't understand the forces at work.”

Father Rafael García, the pastor of Sacred Heart, said he learned about the flights from the news, but it didn’t surprise him that the Florida contractors had chosen his 125-year-old church as a place to recruit migrants. The church and its shelter have appeared frequently in the news, and migrant arrivals in El Paso have reached record highs in the last year. Still, García was disappointed to learn what had happened.

“It’s immoral when you’re using deception to make a political point, or to make a scandal in the media,” García said. "You’re using people for an end, without respect to their dignity.”

The priest said that if the contractors returned to his church to recruit more migrants, he would take pictures of their cars and call police.

By the end of the week, the news of who was responsible for the charter flights had begun to spread among those at the Sacred Heart shelter. Luis Guerrero, a Venezuelan asylum seeker staying at the church, was offended when he learned that a politician had organized the flights as a form of protest.

"The truth is, I see it as a very bad thing, the way they used the migrants," he said. "They don't understand the reality here: that it was by necessity that we've traveled through all these dangers. The governor of Florida, of California or wherever should focus on fixing their own internal problems, and not use immigration, because we migrants aren't the ones to blame here."

However, to the migrants who turned down the free charter flights, it was obvious why others boarded. For some, it was the promise of lodging and help with their immigration cases. For others, it was simply a free ride to California, a state many want to reach but are unsure how.

Many migrants crossing the Texas border are unfamiliar with U.S. geography and unprepared for how expensive travel can be from El Paso to Chicago, Los Angeles or New York. The federal government does not offer funding or assistance with shelter or travel; nonprofits and local shelters for years have raised money to help migrants reunite with family.

In 2022, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began sending charter buses from the Texas border to Washington, New York and Chicago. While the buses were Abbott's attempt at protesting Democrats' policies on immigration, many migrants eagerly accepted the free ride away from the border.

But others have reported feeling confused about their destination. Many who accepted the DeSantis-organized flight to Martha's Vineyard in 2022 told reporters they felt misled and taken advantage of — none had been trying to reach the island, which has little shelter space or immigration aid, prior to getting approached by Florida contractors.

In El Paso on Friday, Norman Manuel Martínez, an asylum seeker from Nicaragua, said he was disappointed he hadn’t had the chance to take one of the Sacramento flights. He arrived at Sacred Heart Church on Monday, after the last flight had left.

During his first week in the city, Martínez has struggled to raise money so he could reunite with his nephew in Los Angeles or a childhood friend in San Francisco. Men have come to the shelter in the morning offering day labor in the farmlands to the east, and Martínez spent two long days picking onions.

When asked if he would get on a charter flight if the contractors returned, his answer was immediate.

“Of course I would,” he said. "Of course I would."

Special correspondent Ivan Pierre Aguirre contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.