Democratic leaders in California and Texas urged the Justice Department on Thursday to investigate a Florida program that has solicited asylum seekers in Texas and sent them with no 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 Florida’s Republican governor and based on deception, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California; the state’s attorney general, Rob Bonta; and the sheriff of Bexar County in Texas, Javier Salazar, asked for an examination of the Florida program for possible violations of federal law.
“It is unconscionable 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 nongovernmental organizations and local officials have sent migrants from border states to other U.S. destinations, they argued that the Florida program was different because it deceived people by promising them jobs and shelter without providing such offerings. In Sacramento and Martha’s Vineyard, immigrants ended up on the doorsteps of local churches and religious organizations that were not expecting 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 have 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, have in return denounced the relocations as a partisan and callous political stunt. For the past year, Mr. Newsom has attacked Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Abbott for their policies on abortion, guns and immigration while encouraging 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 that Mr. Garland’s office had not yet replied to Thursday’s request.
The letter on Thursday focused on the moves underwritten by a Florida-funded “Unauthorized Alien Transport Program,” which has claimed responsibility for relocating about 100 migrants so far. The program has transported far fewer people than Texas, but has operated more stealthily by dropping off migrants with no warning.
Last month, the Florida program paid for two planeloads of Latin American migrants to fly to Sacramento, prompting civil and criminal investigations by the California Justice Department. After several of the migrants said they had taken the flight because a program contractor had promised them jobs and housing before leaving them without any resources, Mr. Newsom suggested that “kidnapping” charges should be filed 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 had been made. A referral for potential criminal prosecution in that case is pending with the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office, the Thursday letter said.
Legal analysts say that any civil or criminal prosecution could be difficult to pursue, and will probably turn on whether the migrants were misled into their relocations. Many of those who disembarked in California and Massachusetts were carrying documents indicating that they had agreed to be transported.
The Texas sheriff and the California authorities contended that federal officials should get involved because the Florida program had crossed state lines.
“Although separate investigations into potential violations of state laws remain active, the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) has a unique capability to investigate cases where, as here, the scheme stretches from Massachusetts to California,” the letter said.