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Gavin Newsom wants Ron DeSantis charged with ‘kidnapping’ migrants. Is that possible?

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to the media after announcing the state's plan to address homelessness across the state at Cal Expo in Sacramento, on March 16, 2023.
Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to the media after announcing the state's plan to address homelessness across the state at Cal Expo in Sacramento, on March 16, 2023.

There are lots of thorny legal problems with filing kidnapping charges against a rival governor, but the most important one is simple: Proving that the chief executive of the other state is, in fact, responsible for luring migrants onto a plane under false pretenses.

But Gov. Gavin Newsom, on Twitter, is threatening to do just that after two recent flights delivered 36 people to Sacramento. The first flight arrived Saturday and a second arrived on Monday morning.

Though neither flight originated in Florida, California’s governor put the blame squarely on the Sunshine State, as he did last year when planeloads of migrants were flown into Sacramento and Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

“You small, pathetic man,” Newsom tweeted at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday morning. “This isn’t Martha’s Vineyard. Kidnapping charges?”

Newsom then linked to the California criminal code statute on kidnapping, specifically the section on bringing someone into the state against their will.

Newsom also made noise last year when requesting the federal government investigate the previous flights, but so far, the U.S. Department of Justice has not made public any such investigation.

Immigrant advocates said on Monday that the human consequences of federal inaction last year are arriving tired and hungry in Sacramento this week.

“I think it was a mistake to dismiss these flights as a stunt in September,” said immigration and border consultant Chris Rickerd. “It was a mistake not to stop the escalation then.”

A spokesperson for California Attorney General Rob Bonta told The Associated Press that the migrants were transported through a program run by Florida’s Division of Emergency Management and carried out by the same contractor paid by the state of Florida to fly migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in September.

“While we continue to collect evidence, I want to say this very clearly: State-sanctioned kidnapping is not a public policy choice, it is immoral and disgusting,” Bonta said in a statement.

Brian Hofer, an attorney and executive director of the Oakland-based nonprofit Secure Justice, which advocates against what the organization deems to be state and corporate overreach, said the legal ground is “messy” for determining charges, much less where to file them.

“You took people from one state, on flights which are funded by another state, dropped them off in a third state, and you’re going to say they were coerced or taken under threat of force?” Hofer said. “What court do you bring that in?

“It’s just a mess. The legal ground is certainly messy.”

Mark Meuser, a San Francisco-based constitutional and election law attorney, disputed Newsom’s legal reasoning in a tweet on Monday.

“Can you please cite one Florida law that prohibits the transportation of individuals who are in this country illegally to a sanctuary state?” wrote Meuser, a Republican who ran against U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla in last November’s election.

Gavin Newsom called for Justice Department investigation

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the flights “dangerous and unacceptable” on Monday, but the Biden administration’s response to previous migrant flights has been, at the very least, out of public view.

Newsom in September asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate whether the flights could be considered kidnapping under state laws. If they could, he wrote, then the U.S. Justice Department should get involved because they could be considered violations of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

In September, Rachael Rollins, former U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, pledged to “look long and hard” at potential charges. But Rollins has since resigned, and it’s unclear where that investigation led. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts did not return calls from CalMatters on Monday.

DeSantis’s office also didn’t return calls and emails from CalMatters. Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature has set aside $12 million for the migrant flights.

Bonta, as California’s attorney general, also didn’t file state charges related to those September flights, and it’s unclear what would be different this time. Bonta did not respond to requests for comment from CalMatters.

Newsom’s office released a statement late Monday that expressed support for Bonta’s investigation into the flights.

“As to specific charges and laws that may have been violated, that will ultimately be determined by the attorney general’s office,” Newsom spokesperson Daniel Lopez wrote.

It’s one thing to know the planes came from Florida and another to connect those flights directly to DeSantis. But at least one investigation into that connection is continuing, as the sheriff in Bexar County, Texas, has turned over the results of a criminal investigation into DeSantis for his alleged role in transporting 49 migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard last year.

The Texas Tribune reports that the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office recently filed several counts of unlawful restraint, both misdemeanors and felonies as a result of the investigation, but didn’t name individual suspects. The investigation has been turned over to the Bexar County District Attorney.

Sacramento surprised by migrant flights

California was caught unaware by the latest arrivals, who were diverted to a small airport in the city and met by local outreach groups and law enforcement.

Sacramento County spokesperson Kim Nava said the migrants left from Texas and changed planes in tiny Deming, N.M., before arriving in California.

“The county did not know the flight was coming in,” she said. “We don’t have communication (with the state of Texas) at this time.”

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said the migrants were being used as “political pawns.” He said he’s focused on “making sure the people who landed here are cared for, and that’s our job.”

Steinberg, a Democrat who is considering a run for attorney general, said he supported a review of whether criminal charges should be filed.

“I mean, I think we ought to, you know, await the result of an investigation, but certainly, an investigation into potential criminal culpability is warranted,” he said.

Each of the migrants carried a clear plastic bag, inside of which were papers directing them to immigration courts, some as far away as Chicago, according to an advocacy group that has been supporting them. Landing in California could make it more difficult for those individuals to reach their court appearances.

“So they’re not even trying to get them closer to families or closer to their court,” said Lydia Guzman, national immigration chair for The League of United Latin American Citizens. “This is all politics.”

Guzman said the organization also demanded action from the federal government in September.

“We inquired with the (U.S.) Department of Justice, we wanted them to look at who was behind all of this,” Guzman said. “We never heard back from DOJ on this issue.”

Nigel Duara joined CalMatters in 2020 as a Los Angeles-based reporter covering poverty and inequality issues for our California Divide collaboration. Previously, he served as a national and climate correspondent on the HBO show VICE News Tonight. Before that, he was the border correspondent at the Los Angeles Times based in Phoenix, deployed to stories across the country. He is a longtime contributor to Portland Monthly magazine and graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
Jeanne returned home to California to cover the state's economic divide for CalMatters. She previously covered Missouri government and politics for The Kansas City Star, local and state government for The News Journal in Delaware, and criminal justice issues in Illinois. She is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
CalMatters is a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.