They saw themselves in the video that Florida officials offered up as proof of their consent to travel to California, but they said it’s not what it seemed.
They were happy, yes. That part was true.
They had finally made it to America after traveling thousands of miles over the span of three months from their home in Venezuela. They walked until their feet bled and caught a bus or a train when they could. Sometimes they went days without eating and collapsed with exhaustion.
The young husband and wife had held each other in the jungle, sleeping without even a blanket. They ran out of the rice and tuna they had packed and picked fruit from trees to survive. They cleaned windshields in exchange for donations or food when they traveled through cities.
“There were many moments of desperation and frustration and fear,” the 34-year-old husband said in Spanish in an interview with The Times on Friday in Sacramento. “But with God, we felt at peace. It was not easy.”
Four migrants recently flown to Sacramento by the state of Florida spoke to The Times and asked not to be identified, worried that it could impact their upcoming court hearings or put their families who remain in their home countries in danger.
They are among 36 people who arrived on two chartered flights this month, a move that Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken responsibility for as he runs for president and lambastes Democratic immigration policies.
After journeying from Central and South America to escape violence and poverty at home, they have unknowingly landed at the center of a political firestorm in the United States.
They say they were duped by Florida officials and that, while they are grateful to be in America, their plans have been disrupted, with immigration hearings now spread across the country and job opportunities stalled.
Members of the group — which also include former residents of Colombia and Guatemala — said they came to California because they were promised that they would be given a home, higher paying jobs and attorneys to help them more quickly obtain permits to work legally.
When the married couple crossed the border to enter Texas, they said, it meant that it had all been worth it: that they could send money home to their children, whom they had left behind with a grandparent in Venezuela, with hopes of eventually reuniting.
The kids, ages 9, 10 and 13, don’t have shoes, and they don’t eat well, their father said.
So the smiles on the migrants’ faces in the viral video touted by DeSantis were real. But that’s because they were promised so much more, they said.
The contractors hired by Florida state officials, whom they met in Texas earlier this month, promised better-paying jobs elsewhere, they said. The husband and wife said they were pressured to sign paperwork in order to make the trip but didn’t understand that doing so was intended to waive the state of Florida from fulfilling the promises they made verbally.
“We didn’t get what they told us that we were going to get. They said that if you take the flight, you can get shelter, you’re going to get work, you’re going to get food,” the man said. “And all we received was abandonment.”
He is tall and strong. But as he sat in the sanctuary of the Parkside Community Church, he nervously rubbed his legs whenever the topic turned to his children. Tears rolled down this face.
He was wearing denim shorts printed with stars and stripes and an American flag sweatshirt to match — clothes he had recently chosen at a local thrift store with the help of organizers who have cared for them since they were dropped off on the doorstop of a local diocese two weeks ago.
“I didn’t know that all of us were being deceived,” he said.
His 28-year-old wife wears a ponytail and grips a cup of coffee as she explains that she is thankful for the kindness the nonprofit and faith community in Sacramento has showed them, but that she wouldn’t have come if she had known the truth.
During the few days they spent in El Paso upon first arriving to the United States, they slept at a shelter and got to work immediately. He earned $80 a day working construction, while his wife earned $50 cleaning up the work sites afterward.
They only came to Sacramento because they thought they were going to earn more money, which would allow them to help their children faster, she said. Now, they have no jobs and must start all over again.
“I would’ve rather stayed there to make money,” she said.
While Florida state officials have rebutted criticisms that the migrants were tricked in the name of a political stunt, some migrants who spoke to media for the first time on Friday say they were blatantly lied to.
Florida officials said in a statement last week that the flights were part of a “voluntary relocation” program and provided video of people appearing to sign waivers agreeing to go on the trip. California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta is investigating the matter and Gov. Gavin Newsom has floated kidnapping charges against DeSantis.
DeSantis administration officials did not return a request for comment on Friday when asked about the migrants’ claims.
One migrant showed The Times the paperwork that he was given by the Florida Division of Emergency Management, which references a “voluntary transportation program” and agrees to not bring any lawsuits against the state of Florida in exchange for free transportation. That man did not sign the waiver, which also asked signatories to agree that their decision to take the trip was not in exchange for “representations or promises” made regarding employment, benefits, healthcare and other assistance.
But that’s exactly what the migrants who spoke to The Times said happened.
A 27-year-old man from Guatemala said he was separated from his girlfriend and his 4-year-old stepson by immigration officials once they arrived in America.
He is eager to work and earn income to be able to move them to Sacramento from New York, where they are now living in a shelter.
The journey for the young family was difficult. The shelters were often full in Mexico, and they had to sleep on the streets, he said. They put up to six sets of pajamas on their son when it was too cold outside.
He worked as a security guard in Guatemala but the money was never enough to make ends meet and violence was everywhere.
“If anybody leaves their country, it is because of need, not because they want to,” he said. “I don’t really ask for anything else from life, just to be able to have work and to have my family with me.”
He has seen the news. He knows that his trip here has reignited a national debate about immigration reform and exacerbated a nasty battle between DeSantis and Newsom. He knows that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this week in a similar move sent migrants to Los Angeles.
He said he has tried to ignore it and focus on his mission to reunite his family but he couldn’t take it anymore. He is angry that he was told he would have a lawyer that would help him and his girlfriend build a life together. Instead, he said, he was left in a parking lot with nothing.
He said he was rushed to sign a waiver before he could fully read it, and never saw a copy in Spanish.
“They’re saying a version that really makes no sense,” he said of Florida officials. “What I really want you to get across is that they promised us something and they still haven’t fulfilled that.”