California Considers Criminal Charges for San Marcos Airline That Flew Migrants for DeSantis
Involuntary transport on behalf of the Florida governor
A San Marcos airline company, Berry Aviation Inc., has been named as part of an ongoing law enforcement investigation by the state of California for what Gov. Gavin Newsom suggested may constitute kidnapping. Twice in early June, newly arrived immigrants in El Paso were taken to Sacramento by charter plane – 36 people in total – at the behest of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' relocation regime, the dubiously dubbed Voluntary Migrant Transport Program. Review of flight records by The Sacramento Bee confirmed that Berry Aviation flew the aircraft involved in what California Attorney General Rob Bonta labeled "deceptive and immoral" transports.
"Upon meeting with the asylum seekers who had been flown to Sacramento via private plane, without any prior arrangements or immediate care provision, we understood the urgent need for a thorough investigation," the state's chief law officer said June 14.
On June 2, passengers on the first of the two flights – a Dash 8 turboprop airliner owned by Berry Aviation – found themselves ditched at the doorstep of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, where church officials didn't know they'd be arriving. A local alliance of religious congregations, Sacramento ACT, who assisted the group, said the asylum-seekers possessed little more than backpacks and had no idea where they had been abandoned.
"Human trafficking is not only despicable; it's a felony," Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said in a statement. "Whoever is behind this must answer the following: Is there anything more cruel than using scared human beings to score cheap political points?"
Some of the people flown by Berry Aviation to California had pending court dates for asylum cases elsewhere in the nation – including, strikingly, in Florida. Bonta said forthcoming public records from the Sunshine State – in part "communications and any instructions or orders provided by [the Florida governor's office or the Florida Division of Emergency Management] to entities involved in the transportation, including … Berry Aviation" – will impact California's evaluation of "potential criminal or civil action against those who transported … these vulnerable immigrants."
In June, Bonta cited false imprisonment as one potential criminal charge for the flights, while Gov. Newsom tweeted a snippet of state penal code that defines kidnapping as abduction "by force or fraud" and branded DeSantis a "small, pathetic man."
The attorney general's office said the deserted asylum-seekers they interviewed alleged false promises of jobs, housing, and clothing prior to boarding the plane.
Last month, Texas' own campaign to relocate immigrants sparked national fervor when a 3-year-old child died on a bus to Chicago. The child was one of 30,000 people shuttled to Democrat-controlled cities as part of Gov. Greg Abbott's multibillion-dollar Operation Lone Star.
For 30 years, Berry Aviation has been headquartered at San Marcos Regional Airport, along Highway 21: a route with historic origins as El Camino Real de Los Tejas – a principal artery of immigration for thousands of white colonists in the early 19th century – snaking beyond the Rio Grande River, on toward Mexico City.
Asked Sept. 5 if, several months later, Berry Aviation has been removed as a party of interest, the California A.G.'s Office told the Chronicle, "We are unable to share details of our ongoing investigation at this time." Representatives of Berry Aviation did not respond to our request for comment. Nor did Texas Aviation Partners, the company under contract with San Marcos until October 2025 to manage the municipally owned airport. City spokesperson Lauren Surley told us, "To date, the City has not identified a specific lease violation by Berry Aviation, Inc. that would authorize the City to terminate the lease. We will monitor the situation for any new developments and assess what, if any, actions by the City may be warranted."
Jordan Buckley is a co-founder of Hays County advocacy group Mano Amiga and left in 2022. He now muckrakes for the grassroots media outlet Caldwell/Hays Examiner.