SAN FRANCISCO – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recruiters set their sights on Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the Texas border city of El Paso in search of asylum-seekers they could take from its bustling migrant shelter to California's capital on taxpayer-funded private jets.
Intentionally or not, envoys for Florida's Catholic governor and Republican presidential candidate infused an element of his own religion into his latest move on immigration, which has drawn sharp criticism from El Paso’s Catholic bishop.
“Without going into the details of the politics of it, it does seem clear that they were being used not out of concern for the migrants but in an effort to make a political point," Bishop Mark Seitz told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Seitz said many migrants arriving in the U.S. don't know the geography, including how far cities and states are from one another, and are just anxious to move on.
“If you're seeking to help a person who needs to get to a certain destination where they have a sponsor, where they have a job or something like that, that is a commendable act," Seitz said. "But if they are being moved simply in order to use them to make a political point, that is reprehensible. It is taking person who already has lost everything — everything. They have nothing, not even a nation they can really call their own because they have had to flee that nation. And then using them for your own purposes: That is not morally acceptable.”
DeSantis has acknowledged that Florida paid to transport 36 mostly Venezuelan migrants from Republican-led Texas to Sacramento on charter flights last Friday and on Monday. The first group was dropped off in front of the Roman Catholic Diocese in Sacramento, also the headquarters of Catholic Charities, apparently without warning. Local advocates and officials met the second group at the airport after learning of their arrival.
The governor says they made the trip voluntarily — a claim that some migrant advocates challenge. He also says they signed waivers to that effect and that California effectively invited them with its welcoming policies.
“I think the border should be closed. I don’t think we should have any of this. But if there’s a policy to have an open border, then I think the sanctuary jurisdictions should be the ones that have to bear that,” DeSantis said Wednesday at an event for law enforcement officials in Sierra Vista, Arizona.
Asked about the bishop's criticism, DeSantis spokesman Jeremy Redfern said the governor's previous comments “stand on their own.”
In May, DeSantis signed a law allocating up to $12 million for migrant flights, like two that Florida funded last year from San Antonio to the pricey Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard.
References to the Martha’s Vineyard flights have become a staple in DeSantis’ presidential stump speech and often draw hearty applause from Republican primary voters. The Sacramento flights are part of a broader effort by certain Republican-led states to send migrants to Democratic-leaning parts of the country, including New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
President Joe Biden is also Catholic and, like DeSantis, he has clashed with bishops, though in Biden's case over LGBTQ+ rights and abortion. In addition to immigration, DeSantis has split with bishops over the death penalty, which the governor supports and the church doesn't.
Seitz, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ migration committee, has been bishop for a decade in heavily Catholic El Paso, which sits in one of the busiest corridors for illegal border crossings. Sacred Heart is downtown, a few blocks from Mexico.
Two men and a woman working for the Florida government recruited migrants outside Sacred Heart with promises of jobs and housing in California, said Imelda Maynard, director of legal services at Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services Inc., which is part of the Diocese of El Paso.
A Venezuelan man said he was lured to a distant motel with his wife and four children for three days, Maynard said. He became suspicious and pulled out after being told he would have to fly separately and the rest of his family would follow on a different flight because there wasn't enough room for them to go together.
The man didn't know where the motel was, but Maynard suspects it was in Deming, New Mexico, which was where the charter flights departed for Sacramento. The family hitchhiked back to Sacred Heart.
A passenger who was on the first flight called the Venezuelan migrant to say he had been duped, Maynard said.
"Don’t come. It’s a scam. There are no jobs here, there is no room and board. They just dumped us in the middle of nowhere at this church and no one knows what’s going on,” the Venezuelan migrant recounted being told.
Sacred Heart is a well-known shelter, particularly among Venezuelans. It is indicative of the many Catholic charities along the southern border from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, that provide food, showers, housing and transportation to migrants seeking a rest stop before leaving for their final destinations in the United States.
It is unclear if Sacred Heart was the only place that DeSantis' recruiters targeted. Maynard said she didn't know of any others.
Maynard said standing outside a shelter promising jobs that don't exist was “gross.” California Gov. Gavin Newsom, DeSantis' perennial Democratic rival, has suggested it may be criminal.
“It’s really dehumanizing to have someone play with you that way because no one took into account these are human beings and they were toyed with,” Maynard said.
DeSantis’ office has emphasized that its contractor safely delivered migrants to Catholic Charities of Sacramento Inc., which is located at the California diocese. The Sacramento charity has not responded to the AP’s requests for comment.
Seitz applauded Catholic Charities’ response.
“I’m inspired by the way I see people received here on the border, and, I’m hearing reports, by the way they were received in Sacramento by Catholic Charities,” he said. “Catholic Charities was not informed, but they stepped up and received them, and that’s the good news in all of this.”
Spagat reported from San Diego.
Find more AP coverage of the immigration issue: https://apnews.com/hub/immigration