A former US army combat medic and counterintelligence agent allegedly solicited asylum seekers to join flights out of Texas to Martha’s Vineyard that Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, chartered.
Perla Huerta was sent to Texas from Tampa to fill the planes at the center of the trips, which many have argued could amount to illegal human trafficking, a person briefed on an investigation into the case told the New York Times.
In September, dozens of asylum seekers were transported to Martha’s Vineyard, an affluent community in Massachusetts, and were promised cash assistance, help with housing and other resources if they traveled to the state. DeSantis claimed responsibility for the flights, portraying it as a protest against the Joe Biden White House’s immigration policy.
The flights – one of which made a stop in Florida – departed from San Antonio and therefore drew scrutiny from the sheriff’s office there.
Huerta was discharged from the US army in August after serving the military branch for two decades. A migrant told CNN that a woman named “Perla” offered him clothes, food, and money in exchange to help find other migrants, mostly from Venezuela, to board the flights to Massachusetts. She gave him $10 McDonald’s gift cards to be handed out to the asylum seekers who agreed to join the flights.
Florida officials confirmed a payment to the airline charter company, Vertol Systems, for $615,000 on September 8. The money comes from a state budget signed earlier this year giving DeSantis $12m for a program to deport migrants.
Vertol Systems offers aviation maintenance and training services and performs work for the US government. The company has networked with Florida’s Republican power brokers over the years.
The charter has contributed money to some of DeSantis’s top allies, including Congress member Matt Gaetz and Florida’s public safety director in charge of immigration policy, Larry Keefe, according to NBC News.
Attorneys representing the asylum seekers have filed a federal class-action lawsuit against DeSantis and others, contending that the plaintiffs were misled into thinking they would receive benefits upon arrival to Martha’s Vineyard.
However, those benefits are only available for refugees, a specific status that the asylum seekers do not currently fall under.
Some legal experts have deemed DeSantis’ acts as human trafficking or smuggling. The group Lawyers for Civil Rights labeled the move as an “appalling” political stunt.
In the San Antonio area, the Bexar county sheriff, Javier Salazar, launched an investigation examining the flights that took off from there.
Upon the asylum seekers’ arrival, aid group workers quickly gathered food as well as supplies and set up shelter. Island residents set up a church to house the migrants and provided translation services.
The asylum seekers were also receiving clothing from community thrift shops, and people were increasingly calling to volunteer to help them and donate to them.
Many of the asylum seekers ended up at a military base in Cape Cod with little knowledge of what would happen next.
The flights are an escalation of Republican officials sending hundreds of asylum seekers to predominantly Democratic areas. The Texas governor, Greg Abbott, has sent more than 100 migrants from Colombia, Cuba, Guyana, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela by bus from Texas to the Washington DC home of Vice-President Kamala Harris.
Abbot has also sent buses to New York City.