Florida officials have provided little information about the flights of Venezuelan migrants the state provided to Martha’s Vineyard last month.
But now details are starting to emerge of the political ploy Governor Ron DeSantis is taking credit for, according to a new report by the New York Times.
The woman behind the solicitation of those 48 migrants is a woman named Perla Huertas, a woman with a background in military counterintelligence who investigators believe was sent to Texas from Tampa in order to fill the planes.
The woman was described by the migrants only by her first name, Perla, and is a former combat medic and counterintelligence agent who was discharged last month after two decades in the U.S. Army, including several deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
A Venezuelan migrant who was working with Ms. Huerta to recruit migrants confirmed her identity, and a migrant in San Antonio whom Ms. Huerta had unsuccessfully sought to sign up identified a photo of her in an interview with The Times. Several of the migrants on Martha’s Vineyard photographed her during the recruitment process in San Antonio, according to Rachel Self, a lawyer representing the migrants. Lawyers working with them were able to match those photos with others online and in social media belonging to a woman named Perla Huerta.NYT
In the case of the flights to Martha’s Vineyard, Florida state records show that an airline charter company, Vertol Systems, was paid $615,000 on Sept. 8 and $950,000 less than two weeks later. The first payment was for “project 1” and the second payment for “projects two and three.” So far, Florida officials have acknowledged only the initial flights and have not spoken of plans for others.
That money was used from a special $12 million appropriation in the state’s last budget, a brief item that gave funds to the state’s Department of Transportation to create a program “to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.”
In August, DeSantis said the funds had yet to be used because the large groups of migrants expected to arrive in Florida had not materialized.
Vertol Systems, founded in the mid-1990s, offers aviation maintenance and training services, and does work for the U.S. government. The company has networked with Florida power brokers over the years.
Court records show that Vertol was once represented by Matt Gaetz in litigation.
Another lawyer, Larry Keefe, also represented Vertol. Keefe is now DeSantis’s public safety czar, leading efforts to confront immigration issues.
Vertol and its leader, James Montgomerie, have donated to Florida Republicans including Gaetz and Representative Jay Trumbull, who led the Florida House Appropriations Committee this year as lawmakers earmarked the money for a program initially intended to relocate migrants from Florida.
Dozens of migrants told accounts of how Perla recruited them for these flights in San Antonio.
They were told there were jobs and people to help them. They were offered free meals at McDonald’s and a free stay at a hotel before their flights. They each received a red folder with a map of the U.S. and a map of Martha’s Vineyard, showing the airport and the community center where they would receive help.
Also in the folder was a fake brochure titled “Refugee Migrant Benefits,” in English and Spanish. The cover proclaimed, “Massachusetts Welcomes You,” and featured a state flag that was not current. The brochure promised “up to eight months of cash assistance” for “income-eligible” refugees in Massachusetts, apparently mimicking benefits offered to refugees who arrive in the United States through the country’s official resettlement program, which the Venezuelans were not part of.
The men, women and children who signed up were flown from San Antonio and landed first in Crestview, Fla. The migrants did not disembark. From there, the flight stopped again in South Carolina before reaching its final destination on Martha’s Vineyard on Sept. 14.
They were taken in vans that had been waiting for them and deposited near a community center, where they were told to knock on the door.
The people at Martha’s Vineyard Community Service spotted a group of people wandering around looking lost. Eventually 48 migrants had gathered at the center’s parking lot, and were given clothing, underwear, and shelter in a church where they slept on cots for two nights. Most ended up at an unused military barracks on Cape Cod.