Sacramento embraces surprise arrival of migrants stuck in national political feud

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg joins local church and nonprofit leaders at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg joins local church and nonprofit leaders at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral to speak about the needs of migrants who were flown to the city by Florida state officials.
(Mackenzie Mays / Los Angeles Times)
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On the same day that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration took responsibility for sending dozens of migrants seeking asylum to California, the volunteers and organizers inside the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral of Sacramento refused to say the Republican politican’s name.

Instead, they wanted to talk about the 36 men and women they’ve cared for this week, who they say were left exhausted, confused and afraid at the doorstep of a local church in what California officials have called a political stunt.

Gabby Trejo, executive director of Sacramento Area Congregations Together, said the migrants she took to church with her on Sunday — some who had walked thousands of miles over the course of several months from Venezuela to the U.S. — reached into their pockets to offer a dollar for the collection plate.


“I said, no, you need it more than our church does today. But they didn’t care. They still put it in the plate,” Trejo said. “In that moment, our new neighbors showed me what it means for them to also be able to contribute to our community.”

Cecila Flores, who has supported the migrants since the first group arrived by plane on Friday, wiped away tears at a news conference on Tuesday.

In their 20s and 30s, most of the migrants are the first in their families to make it to the U.S. and are eager to work, she said. Some are married. One brought along a dog named Gieco.

When she asks them simple questions like what they want for dinner, they are timid. Anything is fine, they always say.

“It’s been years since I’ve been able to pick my own clothes,” one man told Flores, an organizer at Sacramento ACT, after a volunteer took him to the thrift store. Until then, he had depended on clothes given to him, she said.

The identities of the migrants, who also came from countries including Colombia and Guatemala, remain undisclosed as the California Department of Justice investigates the incident. Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has threatened conservative presidential hopeful DeSantis with kidnapping charges.


Organizers said Tuesday that the migrants had arrived at the Texas border, where they were met by people claiming to be with a relocation program, promising housing and jobs. They were then shuttled to New Mexico and flown to Sacramento on a chartered plane.

Representatives for DeSantis — who flew migrants to liberal Martha’s Vineyard as a statement against progressive immigration policies last year — said Tuesday that the Sacramento group consented to go to California.

Alecia Collins, a spokesperson for Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, called the flights “voluntary relocation.” A contractor ensured they made it safely, she said.

The statement included a video showing more than a dozen people signing paperwork and sitting aboard a private plane. It later shows one person saying they’ve arrived in California. The video includes images of people smiling and dancing, and one man speaks about his experience migrating through Central America.

The people working on the ground with them in Sacramento said that the migrants had no idea where they were headed. Their “American dream” quickly became “a nightmare,” Trejo said, saying they were deceived.

Along with city and county officials, local church leaders and nonprofits have scrambled to help them.


With the help of donations and volunteers, faith-based groups such as Sacramento ACT and PICO California have secured temporary housing, clothes, food and cellphones for the migrants, as well as duffle bags for them to keep their new things.

They have rushed to connect them with attorneys so that they can plan for upcoming immigration hearings. The county sent a nurse to perform checkups. Volunteers have also reached out to mental health counselors, dentists and hair stylists, as some have not had a haircut in months.

A defiant Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat and former leader of the state Senate, painted a picture of a cruel political trick gone wrong. The migrants are welcome here, he said, even as the city grapples with a homelessness crisis.

The migrants are safe, “well cared for” and in “good spirits,” he said.

“I don’t want to talk about who may have done this, who likely did this. They — he — are not worth dignifying,” Steinberg said. “If this is an attempt to send a message, I suppose I can say, ‘Message received.’ But the way we’re receiving the message may be different than whoever did this intends. We’re going to welcome people.”

While Steinberg said he aimed to make Sacramento’s mission apolitical, Newsom hasn’t shied away from blaming DeSantis by name.

“Now, who’s ultimately accountable and responsible? I mean, the buck should stop with Ron DeSantis and the games he’s playing,” Newsom told NBC’s “Today” show in an interview Tuesday. “But it’s the folks on the front lines that were doing the dirty work. And that’s ultimately what we have to determine, is where the culpability lands and resides.”


In a statement in response to the video from DeSantis’ team, PICO California said they will continue to shield the migrants from the media to avoid their involvement in “political theater.” Volunteers at the church Tuesday read from statements some of the migrants had written or recorded in voice memos, as to protect their identity.

“I could never had imagined what’s happened in the last few days. My traveling has had a lot of difficult moments, but I thank God. I’m hoping to have a good life here and I was welcomed with open arms,” one woman wrote. “I want to work and serve. We are here to help.”

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer Melanie Mason contributed to this report.