color photograph of the abdomens and upper legs of three protesters. they all wear dark blue t-shirts. the protester in the middle holds a picket sign reading "opportunity for all no one is illegal on stolen land"
Los Angeles, CA - May 17: A protester holds a sign that reads, "No one is illegal on stolen land!," as students and supporters gathered to support undocumented students in the University of California system in Los Angeles, Wednesday, May 17, 2023. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

On June 2 and 5, Florida officials orchestrated the relocation of two groups of asylum-seekers, largely Venezuelans and Colombians, from Texas to California’s capital city of Sacramento, where they were dropped off without notice or support. The incidents are part of a wider effort by Republicans since last year to overwhelm social resources in largely immigrant-friendly Democratic cities—from New York City to Washington, D.C.—and to push anti-immigration policies. Community groups say they are now left with the daunting task of supporting these asylum-seekers, who have become unwitting victims of Republicans’ political scheming. 

In Sacramento, the task of coordinating support services for the 36 newly arrived asylum-seekers has primarily fallen to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, where the first group of asylum-seekers was dropped off by Florida’s relocation contractors, and Sacramento Area Congregations Together (Sacramento ACT), a coalition of faith-based organizations that focus on social justice. 

The arrival of the first group of asylum-seekers was marked by complete uncertainty, recalled Cecilia Flores, Sacramento ACT’s communications strategist. 

“[The asylum-seekers] were confused,” said Flores, who was dispatched with another colleague to the drop-off site after receiving a phone call from the Catholic Diocese. “They realized they’d been scammed, as some of them were saying, and that the people who had dropped them off there had just abandoned them … We knew we had to activate our network.”

For Sacramento ACT, that meant activating their network of partners to secure immediate services for three dozen asylum-seekers with no prior notice.

“It’s definitely outside of our normal scope of work,” Flores said. 

Two key services needed for asylum-seekers are housing and legal support, local organizers said. Securing long-term housing for these clients has been especially challenging in a state where the housing crisis has become untenable. Roughly 30% of the country’s houseless population resides in California, according to a statewide comprehensive study of the unhoused population conducted under the University of California, San Francisco’s Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative. Among the study’s findings, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people were overly represented within California’s unhoused groups compared to the state’s overall population. Twenty-six percent were Black, 12% were Indigenous, and 35% were Latinx. 

“Individuals with certain vulnerabilities, those with a history of trauma, and/or those from racially minoritized groups, are at higher risk of experiencing homelessness,” the study noted

A spokesperson for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of the partner organizations serving the asylum-seekers in Sacramento, said that they were initially placed in an undisclosed facility by other local partners before being moved into hotels as a short-term solution. Organizers did not disclose where the asylum-seekers are currently housed due to privacy and safety concerns. 

Securing funding for the long-term needs of the groups so that they may become self-sufficient is one of the main priorities for IRC. Additionally, the team has been “working on case management with the clients to help them sign up for benefits, identify ways to find support in the community, as well as provide donations like gift cards to local stores, clothing, and other essential items,” said Amy Kalmbach, IRC’s senior manager for protection and wellness. 

The California Attorney General’s Office confirmed that all asylum-seekers among the two groups had immigration cases being processed through the U.S. immigration system before they were relocated to Sacramento by Florida officials. The asylum-seekers are now in need of assistance to navigate their next steps so that they can comply with their immigration proceedings. Many have upcoming court appearances scheduled outside of California. 

“What makes it challenging with this group is they didn’t plan to come [to Sacramento], and so because of that they don’t really have a network of support. They don’t really know anyone here that can help them find those locations and get them connected,” Flores said. The groups who arrived in Sacramento were reportedly recruited for relocation in El Paso, Texas, by contractors linked to the Florida government before they were sent to New Mexico and then jetted to California’s capital.

Organizers say the Sacramento Family Unity, Education, and Legal Network for Immigrants—locally known as FUEL—is connecting asylum-seekers with legal assistance through its community partners across the city. The IRC and other partner groups have provided legal consultations for the asylum-seekers, but they are still in need of pro bono attorneys to provide full representation for asylum-seekers to navigate their immigration cases following their abrupt relocation. 

Florida officials claimed both groups of asylum-seekers in Sacramento had consented to be transported from Texas. But according to organizations that have supported the asylum-seekers since their arrival, they were promised housing and work opportunities by contractors from Vertol Systems Company, which documents show was authorized by state officials to carry out transportation for Florida’s so-called Voluntary Migrant Transport Program. (Reports show that Vertol Systems Company also facilitated the transportation of dozens of Venezuelan migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, last year.)

On June 14, California Attorney General Rob Bonta sent two public records requests to Florida state officials seeking governmental records related to the program. The attorney general is looking at the possibility of criminal liability in relation to the groups’ relocation under false pretenses, which includes kidnapping and false imprisonment.

“We believe that it’s appropriate to call actions what they are,” Bonta said during an appearance on CNN. “And to call out the inhumanity, cruelty, and the political gamesmanship here, which is really falling on the backs of human beings and people here all for cheap political gain.” 

As California launches its investigation, advocacy groups are calling on the state to grant asylum-seekers who are cooperating with the state’s investigation eligibility certification for a U visa—a legal designation that gives deportation protections and work permits for immigrant victims who cooperate with law enforcement during serious crime investigations. 

California is not the only state potentially pursuing legal action over the relocation of asylum-seekers across state lines. A Texas county sheriff’s office recommended this month that a San Antonio-area district attorney file charges of unlawful restraint over a similar incident last year when 49 Venezuelan asylum-seekers were relocated from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, also orchestrated by the Florida government. Florida’s anti-immigration relocation efforts are reportedly funded with $12 million taken from federal COVID-19 relief funds. 

Separately, another group of asylum-seekers was relocated to California June 14 by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who took credit for the stunt in a press release stating: “Los Angeles is a major city that migrants seek to go to, particularly now that its city leaders approved its self-declared sanctuary city status.”

The group that arrived in Los Angeles had 42 people, including children, who were dropped off at a local train station and are now being cared for by city agencies and community organizations. In a series of tweets, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass said the city had prepared for such events, and that “Los Angeles is not a city motivated by hate or fear and we absolutely will not be swayed or moved by petty politicians playing with human lives.”

As Republicans continue their anti-immigration campaign through the unethical relocation of asylum-seekers, community organizations have stepped up to provide support. In Sacramento, local groups are working with city and state officials to continue helping displaced asylum-seekers access available services. Still, Flores of Sacramento ACT said that community groups need more support to help these asylum-seekers, including supply donations—for immediate essentials like clothes and feminine hygiene products—as well as more funding to sustain long-term services.

“They’re people with lives, with families. They’re young people; they’re people who want to make a life for themselves,” said Flores. “And to be used to make a political point, I just think that’s not how we should be treating people no matter where they come from, and no matter what their immigration status is.”

Natasha Ishak is a New York City-based journalist who covers politics, public policy, and social justice issues. Her work has been published by VICE, Fortune, Mic, The Nation, and Harvard's Nieman Lab...