By Alaa Elassar, Camila Bernal and Jeffrey Kopp, CNN
(CNN) — Asylum-seekers transported from Texas to California’s capital city of Sacramento two weeks ago say they were misled by people who convinced them to travel with promises of work and shelter.
A total of 36 migrants were driven from Texas to New Mexico where they were then transported on private charter flights to California on June 2 and June 5, Eddie Carmona, director of campaigns with the non-profit PICO California, told CNN. Most of the migrants, two of whom CNN spoke to, are from Venezuela and Colombia, while a few are from Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
“We are here because they offered us a job,” one of the migrants, a 34-year-old Venezuelan man who does not want to be identified for legal reasons, told CNN. “We were deceived by the people who provided the flight service. They offered us jobs and housing.”
Investigators from the California Attorney General’s office have determined that although the migrants came from Texas, they were carrying documents purportedly from the Florida government. The papers listed Vertol Systems Company Inc. as the contractor behind the flights. CNN has obtained a signed contract showing Florida’s Division of Emergency Management hired Vertol Systems to relocate migrants in May. It’s the second time Florida’s government has worked with the contractor since the fall of 2022.
Officials with the Florida Division of Emergency Management have maintained all travel was done on a voluntary basis.
Members of the first group told authorities they were told to sign documents before they could board the plane to Sacramento, according to Tara Gallegos, a spokesperson for California Attorney General Rob Bonta. However, not all the migrants – who are not fluent in English – understood where they were headed and not all signed the forms, she said.
The Venezuelan migrant, who had only been in the US for a week before being transported to California on the first flight, told CNN four people approached him in a migrant shelter in El Paso, Texas, and promised if he agreed to go to California, he would be given a job and a place to live.
The migrant said the people asked him to sign paperwork in English, which he doesn’t speak. He said although he didn’t understand the document, he signed it because of what he was promised.
A 31-year-old Colombian woman, who was on the second flight and asked not to be identified for legal reasons, told CNN she was approached by two men at a shelter in El Paso, where she had been for 20 days.
The people who approached them never identified themselves or said who they were and only made promises, the migrants told CNN. The Venezuelan migrant said the people told him the help “came from Florida” but didn’t elaborate.
The Colombian migrant was also promised work and housing in California, “but when we arrived,” she said, “all the dreams, everything you thought, they just disappeared.”
‘It’s not fair that they played with our feelings’
When they arrived in Sacramento, the asylum-seekers on the first flight were transported from the airport to a parking lot they did not recognize, the Venezuelan migrant said.
The parking lot belonged to the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, a local church office, where the migrants were “dumped on the doorstep,” California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement, “without any advance warning.”
The people the migrants believed to be their guides disappeared, and the documents they signed were not returned to them, the Venezuelan told CNN.
“He was supposed to hand us over to other people who would take us directly to where we were going to stay. And from there, to work. That’s why we came here, to work,” he added.
Both migrants said they did not understand politics in the US and reiterated they agreed to come to California because they were being offered the opportunity to work.
“I don’t think we should be involved in politics because we are people who have come here after suffering,” said the Venezuelan migrant, who arrived in Texas on May 27 after traveling predominantly on foot for three months from Venezuela to the US in hopes of escaping his country’s “difficult” economic situation.
“We came to work, to earn the goodwill of many people, because many people might think that we came here to Sacramento looking for other things, not for work, not to improve our lives economically, not to be able to send money back to the little ones at home who are waiting for us.”
The Colombian woman who spoke to CNN said she endured the strenuous journey to the US because she wants to provide for her family, and agreed to go to California because she was promised work. It took her two months to travel from Colombia to the US-Mexico border.
“It doesn’t matter what you have to go through because it’s tough to get here. But you have your family in mind,” she said. “Of course, because they say work and you need to work… the bad thing is that we trusted a person whose intentions we didn’t know.”
“It’s not fair that they played with our feelings, that they promised us things they wouldn’t fulfill,” she added.
‘They were lied to and deceived’ advocates say
Shortly after the relocation, the Florida Division of Emergency Management released two-and-a-half minutes of edited video it claimed showed some of the migrants being transported to California. The video includes footage of some people signing documents, as well as stills and silent footage of people boarding a chartered plane.
The two migrants interviewed by CNN verified they appeared in the video, telling CNN they’d been happy to travel at the time because they’d been promised jobs and housing.
Neither of them had ever been on an airplane before.
Officials with the Florida Division of Emergency Management said the migrants who were flown to Sacramento did so voluntarily, countering accusations from California authorities who said the asylum-seekers were misled into taking trips.
“Florida’s voluntary relocation is precisely that – voluntary,” Florida Division of Emergency Management spokesperson Alecia Collins said in a statement on June 6. “Through verbal and written consent, these volunteers indicated they wanted to go to California. A contractor was present and ensured they made it safely to a 3rd-party (non-government organization). The specific NGO, Catholic Charities, is used and funded by the federal government.”
Most of the migrants are young people who are the first in their families to come to the US, according to Gabby Trejo, the executive director of Sacramento Area Congregations Together, a non-profit collaboration between local religious congregations.
She said many walked three to seven months to come to the US for their dream life, but it turned into a nightmare.
“They were lied to and deceived,” Trejo said at a news conference on June 6. “They can be in this country. They have the paperwork, they’re legally in our country.” She noted the migrants have pending hearings with immigration officials.
Newsom called Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis a “small, pathetic man” in a tweet on June 5 and brought up the possibility of kidnapping charges, linking the post to a California law defining the crime. DeSantis has not answered repeated attempts from CNN for comment on the latest flights or the migrants’ accusations they were deceived.
The California attorney general on June 6 told CNN his office was looking at the possibility of criminal liability, including kidnapping and false imprisonment.
The migrants are now receiving assistance from multiple non-profit organizations in Sacramento who are helping them arrange housing, hire lawyers, and medical checkups, according to Sacramento Area Congregations Together. They are also learning about the basics of living in the US and the organization launched a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the costs of caring for the migrants.
“Thank God those people appeared and through them, we have been able to rest, we have been able to eat well, we have been able to change our clothes,” the Venezuelan migrant told CNN. “Maybe because here we were left with a little backpack as if we were homeless people on the street.”
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