SAN ANTONIO — In June, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a budget that set aside $12 million to create a program for transporting migrants without legal permission out of Florida. He touted it as the highlight of the state’s new spending when it came to immigration.
But just three months later, the money was being used in a place far from Florida, in a very different way: rounding up Venezuelan asylum-seekers on the streets of San Antonio and shipping them on private planes to Massachusetts.
The flights last month, carrying 48 migrants, attracted international attention and drew condemnation from Democrats as well as several legal challenges. DeSantis immediately claimed credit for what appeared to be a political maneuver — dumping dozens of asylum-seekers on the doorstep of Northeastern Democrats who have resisted calls to clamp down on immigration.
Florida officials have provided little information about the program or how it was engineered. But details have begun to emerge of the clandestine mission that was carried out without the knowledge of even the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, a fellow Republican: flights paid for with state money in possible violation of the state law that allocated the money; a charter airline company with political ties to the Florida governor.
And, in the middle of it all, a woman with a background in military counterintelligence whom investigators believe was sent to Texas from Tampa, Florida, in order to fill the planes.
Until now, little has been known about the woman whom migrants said identified herself only by her first name, “Perla,” when she solicited them to join the flights. A person briefed on the San Antonio Sheriff’s Office investigation into the matter told The New York Times that the person being looked at in connection with the operation is a woman named Perla Huerta.
Huerta, a former combat medic and counterintelligence agent, was discharged in August after two decades in the U.S. Army that included several deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to military records. A Venezuelan migrant who was working with Huerta to recruit migrants confirmed her identity, and a migrant in San Antonio whom 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.
Efforts to reach Huerta by phone and at her home in Tampa were unsuccessful.
The man who said he worked with her to help sign up other migrants agreed to speak on the condition that his name not be used because the events are under investigation. He said he first met Huerta on Sept. 10 outside the Migrant Resource Center in San Antonio.
She asked him to help her recruit other migrants like him from Venezuela. But he said he felt betrayed, because she never mentioned working on behalf of the Florida government. “I was also lied to,” he said. “If I had known, I would not have gotten involved.” All he was told, he said, was that “she wanted to help people head up north.”
The effort to fly migrants to Martha’s Vineyard appeared to have been far less organized than the more sweeping program created by Abbott in Texas that had bused more than 11,000 migrants from the state to three northern, Democratic-run cities — Washington, New York and Chicago.
But the goal for both governors was the same: draw attention to the large number of migrants arriving without legal permission daily at the southern border and force Democrats to deal with the migrants whom they profess a desire to welcome.
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.
The money to fly migrants came 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.”
The program was conceived as a means for Florida to push back on the number of migrants without legal permission being flown into the state by the federal government. As of August, DeSantis said the funds had yet to be used, because the additional large groups of migrants that had been expected had failed to materialize.
He set his sights on the place where most migrants were initially arriving — Texas.
Several Democratic state lawmakers raised objections. “They crafted this bill, they set the rules of the game, and they can’t even comply with it,” state Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Democrat, said of the DeSantis administration. Pizzo filed suit in Florida state court hoping to stop the state from spending any more money on similar flights.
No state contracts detailing the spending have been made public, and little has been said by the DeSantis administration about the role played by state transportation officials in arranging or coordinating the flights.
“I have been doing this long enough to know that the state of Florida is being deliberately opaque about this incident,” said Michael Barfield, director of public access at the Florida Center for Government Accountability. “I do believe there is a misuse of state funds.” Vertol Systems, which was founded in the mid-1990s, offers aviation maintenance and training services, and does work for the U.S. government. Over the years, the company has increasingly networked with Republican power brokers in Florida.
In litigation, court records show, Vertol was once represented by Matt Gaetz, now a Republican member of Congress and a close ally of DeSantis. Another lawyer whom the company used for a series of lawsuits, according to information first reported by NBC News, was Larry Keefe. Keefe is now serving as DeSantis’ public safety czar, leading efforts to confront immigration issues.
Vertol and its leader, James Montgomerie, have also donated to Republican legislators, including Gaetz and Rep. 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.
Montgomerie did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The story of how the migrants were recruited for the flights was recounted by dozens of migrants in interviews with lawyers and journalists after arriving, mystified, on what they realized was a remote resort island with few resources.
A woman named Perla, most of them said, had approached them in San Antonio about a free flight to Massachusetts.
There were jobs there, they were told, and people to help them. The woman provided the mostly destitute migrants with free meals at McDonald’s and a place to stay at a nearby La Quinta Inn before the flight.
The migrants each received a red folder containing a map of the United States, with an arrow stretching from Texas to Massachusetts. Another map in the shape of Martha’s Vineyard had a dot for the airport and one for the community services center. Also in the folder was a brochure, apparently fake, titled “Refugee Migrant Benefits,” in English and Spanish. The cover proclaimed, “Massachusetts Welcomes You,” and featured a state flag that was not current. Listed on the back were the names and numbers of a church, a synagogue and a nonprofit on Martha’s Vineyard.
The pamphlet, reviewed by the Times, also 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.
“We were tricked in Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Mexico — and then in the United States,” said Carlos Guanaguanay, 25, who was approached by the woman called Perla while strolling the aisles of a supermarket near a shelter where he had been staying in San Antonio.
He had told her he was searching for work, and she made him an offer he found hard to resist.
It had taken him a month and 20 days to reach the U.S. border, he said, with little food and nowhere to sleep, and he jumped at the promise of transport to a place where he would be cared for and offered a job. “We can work at anything,” Guanaguanay said. “We are here for our families.”
The men, women and children who signed up were flown from San Antonio and landed first in Crestview, Florida. 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.
There, several migrants said in interviews, 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 woman who answered had no idea who they were and did not speak Spanish. “When they opened up their phones and put on Google Maps to see where they were and found out that they were surrounded entirely by water — that was terrifying,” said state Rep. Dylan Fernandes of Massachusetts, a Democrat, who met some of the migrants. Some tried, in vain, to find a bridge.
Beth Folcarelli, CEO at the center, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, said she was in her office talking to a senior staff member at about 3:45 p.m. when outside the window they spotted a group of people walking in the nonprofit’s direction.
“The people approaching looked inquisitive, and like they were looking for help,” she recalled. She stepped out to ask what they needed.
All she understood were the words “Venezuela” and “refugees,” so she rushed inside for help from a manager named Geany Rolanti, who speaks Spanish.
Eventually, 48 people from the flights, including several children, had gathered in the nonprofit’s parking lot. The aid group workers were stumped: Who are you? How did you get here?
A migrant told them they had been promised that the community service organization would help them with housing and a job.
Soon, the migrants were receiving items from a community thrift shop, Chicken Alley: trousers, T-shirts, shoes. Stores in the area donated underwear. An island hotline was inundated with calls from people who wished to help. Donations and volunteers poured into the church where the migrants spent two nights sleeping on cots.
Most of the migrants eventually ended up at a military base on Cape Cod, sleeping in unused barracks. But few had any idea of what would happen to them next.
Staff members at the community center in Martha’s Vineyard arranged for a migrant named Pablo to call home to Venezuela, Rolanti said. He appeared broken.
“My love, we were tricked,” he told his wife, weeping uncontrollably. “This woman lied to us. She lied.”