Newsom threatens DeSantis with kidnapping charges after migrants flown to Sacramento
Gov. Gavin Newsom took his feud with Gov. Ron DeSantis to new heights on Monday, seemingly threatening him with kidnapping charges after California officials say South American migrants were sent to Sacramento by the state of Florida as a political stunt.
Newsom, a Democrat, cited state kidnapping laws in a tweet to the Florida governor and Republican presidential hopeful, whom he called a “small, pathetic man.”
“This isn’t Martha’s Vineyard. Kidnapping charges?” Newsom said in the tweet, referencing DeSantis’ action last year to send a group of Venezuelan migrants to the wealthy liberal vacation spot in Massachusetts.
Sixteen migrants from Venezuela and Colombia were transported from Texas to New Mexico and flown on a chartered jet to Sacramento, where they were dropped off Friday at a church, Newsom said.
On Monday, a plane carrying 20 migrants arrived in Sacramento. Both groups were flown by the same contractor and were carrying documents indicating that their transportation involved the state of Florida, according to officials with the California Department of Justice.
Newsom said that his administration is working with the agency to “investigate the circumstances around” who paid for the plane trips, whether migrants were misled and whether laws were violated, including kidnapping.
It is unclear what legal action the state plans to take. After Newsom tweeted the threat of kidnapping charges, his spokesperson deferred questions to Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta’s office. Bonta said over the weekend that he was “evaluating potential criminal or civil action” but did not release additional details Monday.
DeSantis representatives did not respond to written questions from The Times. His campaign press team, which is active on Twitter, made no mention of Newsom’s tweeted accusation, and DeSantis did not mention the incident on a Monday morning appearance on Fox News radio.
The question is whether Newsom will follow through with legal action over the interstate transportation of migrants or risk being accused of using the incident to stage his own version of political theater as the two governors jockey for national attention.
“It’s potent to both bases — as most moves on immigration are,” said Mike Madrid, a GOP political consultant. “Republicans love DeSantis for this, and Democrats love the opportunity to showcase Democratic acceptance and tolerance.”
Newsom has been known to tweet sharp political messages without fully formed policy to back them up. Earlier this year, he declared California was “done” doing business with Walgreens after the pharmacy chain said it would not distribute an abortion pill in some states, but his administration had to walk that back due to federal law. “Tweeting is not policy,” Newsom’s aide said at the time.
In another instance, as gas prices spiked last year, Newsom took to Twitter to call for a new “windfall tax” on oil companies, telling Californians that they are “ripping you off” and that the plan would send money “directly back to you.” But six months later, Newsom reneged on that demand and instead worked with the Legislature to pass a bill increasing oversight of the industry.
Last year, when DeSantis claimed responsibility for sending dozens of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Newsom wrote a letter to U.S. Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland — which he posted on Twitter — demanding a federal investigation. Asked about the status of that request, a Newsom spokesperson directed questions to the Department of Justice, which did not respond to an inquiry on Monday.
Calvin Kia Abbasi, a spokesperson for PICO California, a faith-based nonprofit that is helping support the migrants in Sacramento, said they “should be righted” by the state and benefit from the due process of law.
“They were taken from nowhere and dropped in the middle of the capital of California with nothing on their backs,” he said. “They deserve actions taken that are in service to their inherent dignity as people, and anything less than that would be an affront to their humanity.”
Migrants impacted in California could join a federal class-action lawsuit against DeSantis and Florida officials regarding the 2022 Martha’s Vineyard incident.
The pending lawsuit, filed by Lawyers for Civil Rights, alleges that Florida officials including DeSantis chartered planes from Texas to Massachusetts as part of a scheme “to defraud vulnerable immigrants to advance a political motive.”
Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights, said his organization has attorneys “on the ground now” in California who are investigating the latest orchestrated flight and whether it aligns with their suit.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of impacted migrants in Massachusetts, accuses DeSantis and Florida officials of illegal seizure, false arrest and fraud.
“There is certainly exposure on both the civil and criminal side for any individuals or private companies that engage in this type of despicable conduct,” Sellstrom said. “The long-lasting impact of a stunt like this … people were traumatized when they realized that they were abandoned.”
This is not the first time this has happened in Sacramento, home of California’s Democratic leaders. Last year, eight Venezuelan migrants were flown from Texas to Sacramento with little cash, and some without shoes.
Autumn Gonzalez, an organizer with NorCal Resist, said those men remain in Sacramento and have not been able to secure a legal way to work. Her organization continues to provide them housing, food and resources, as they do not qualify for social safety net services offered by the state because of their immigration status.
“If more folks come, they are welcome here. We would love to have them,” she said. “We just don’t think people should be used as political pawns and as some kind of statement about immigration. It’s just wrong.”
The Martha’s Vineyard flight captured national attention and propelled DeSantis to the forefront of the immigration debate, along with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who last year bused migrants to the Washington DC home of Vice President Kamala Harris.
Conservative media was especially captivated, said Howard Polskin, the author of the Righting, a newsletter that monitors right-wing outlets.
This time, however, “it’s a ghost story,” Polskin said. “It’s been ignored.”
The muted interest reflects how DeSantis is having a harder time dominating the political conversation on the right, after appearing ascendant in the run-up to the 2022 elections.
“With more candidates throwing their hats in the ring, there’s not as much attention focused on him,” Polskin said.
Last month, DeSantis signed a bill bolstering the relocation program that funded the flight to Martha’s Vineyard. The legislation provided $12 million to relocate migrants, expanded requirements for businesses to check workers’ legal status and mandated hospitals that take Medicaid patients to ask questions about citizenship on intake forms, a move that some immigrant rights advocates say could deter people living in the U.S. illegally from seeking care.
As Newsom has increasingly sought to burnish his credentials as a national Democratic figure, DeSantis has been one of his favorite foils.
He paid for a television ad in the Sunshine State dumping on DeSantis and urging residents to “join the fight, or join us in California.” He challenged the Florida governor to a televised debate. He traveled to DeSantis’ home turf to slam the efforts to reshape education in the state.
DeSantis has tweaked Newsom as well, saying in a speech at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley that the California governor seems “very concerned about what we’re doing in Florida” and that Americans have “voted with their feet” by moving away from blue states.
Scott Jennings, a Republican consultant, noted that DeSantis has often found political success by challenging the governance of liberal governors. He relished contrasting his governance during the COVID-19 pandemic to that of then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who later resigned due to sexual misconduct allegations.
DeSantis “kind of came to prominence in the party as a true fighter by being constantly compared to Cuomo,” Jennings said. “He’s gone, now so the next best foil is Newsom, who Republicans think is ridiculous.”
Though polling showed the Martha’s Vineyard migrant transport did not especially alter the dynamics of the 2022 midterm elections, the actions struck a chord with the GOP base. Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who conducts focus groups with voters across the country, said voters speak “unequivocally in positive terms” about DeSantis sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard and cite it as a top reason for why they view him approvingly.
For a time, DeSantis was a strong performer in Longwell’s focus groups, the strategist said, but there has been a shift back toward former President Trump, who has begun attacking the Florida governor.
The latest round of flights may give DeSantis a new shot at capturing primary voters’ attention.
“He is trying to out-MAGA Trump, which sometimes manifests as who can appear to be the toughest or the harshest against illegal immigration,” Longwell said.