Filling in the blanks on Martha’s Vineyard migrant tale

Lawsuit will be amended to name mystery woman once her identity is confirmed

UNLIKE MOST INTRIGUE-FILLED capers, this one came with the ultimate question that’s usually answered at the end of the story – whodunit? – already settled. 

When two plane loads of Venezuelan migrants from Texas landed last month on Martha’s Vineyard, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis quickly took credit. 

“Yes, Florida can confirm the two planes with illegal immigrants that arrived in Martha’s Vineyard today were part of the state’s relocation program to transport illegal immigrants to sanctuary destinations,” DeSantis’s communications director, Taryn Fenske, told Fox News Digital on September 14.  

But things have gotten murky from there, with DeSantis now less than forthcoming in filling in all the details of how the human transport operation was planned, paid for, and carried out. 

DeSantis appears to have paid for the trips out of a pot of $12 million in a budget bill the governor signed in June that was earmarked for transporting undocumented migrants out of Florida. But further details on the operation that whisked 48 migrants to the Vineyard not from Florida, but from Texas, have been scant. Even fellow Republican governor Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who has been leading the charge in sending migrants to northern states, was kept in the dark by DeSantis about the trip. 

A key figure in the operation was a woman who identified herself only by her first name, “Perla,” who the migrants said recruited them for the trip on the streets of San Antonio, promising them housing and jobs once they got there. 

On Sunday, the New York Times reported that, based on information from a criminal investigation being carried out by the San Antonio sheriff’s office, the mystery woman is Perla Huerta, a former combat medic and counterintelligence agent who was discharged from the US Army in August. The Times said she lives in Tampa, Florida, but said its efforts to contact her there and by phone were unsuccessful. 

While she has already drawn the attention of those pursuing the criminal investigation in Texas, Huerta could also find herself joining DeSantis and his transportation secretary as a named defendant in a federal class-action lawsuit filed last month by Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights. The suit, filed in US District Court in Boston, alleges multiple constitutional violations, including illegal seizure and depriving the migrant plaintiffs of equal protection and due process rights. 

In the lawsuit, the woman alleged to have recruited the migrants in San Antonio is listed simply as “Doe Defendant #1.” Oren Sellstrom, the litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights, said the suit will be amended to name her once her identity has been independently verified. 

Sellstrom said it is atypical that the litigation is now focused on working its way down the chain of command to fill in the details of what took place, rather than the other way around. 

“That’s one of the unusual things behind this case,” he said. “Often in these cases it’s a low-level staffer that has done something and the question in litigation is how far does that reach to the top. Here we have the top government official, Gov. DeSantis, standing up the day after the flights arrive and taking responsibility for the scheme. We know he is responsible. We will find out more in discovery what he was instructing Perla and others to do.” 

The Times reported that Florida state records indicate a charter airline company, Vertol Systems, was paid $1.5 million in two separate payments last month. The paper said litigation records show the company was once represented by Republican US Rep. Matt Gaetz, a key DeSantis ally, and in other cases by Larry Keefe, who is now DeSantis’s public safety czar. 

Questions are being raised not only about potential violations of constitutional rights as alleged in the lawsuit, but also whether laws were violated, including by using the state money to fly migrants from another state. The Times says the Florida budget allocation specified the funds were to “facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state.” 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Despite descriptions of the migrants by DeSantis as “unauthorized” or “illegal,” Sellstrom said all of those who arrived on the Vineyard had presented themselves to US immigration officials after crossing the border, were processed, and then released pending further immigration  proceedings, including petitions for asylum. “They’re all authorized by the federal government to be in the United States,” he said. The claim that they were being relocated to “sanctuary” states is also without foundation, as Massachusetts holds no such designation.

“Of course, that comes back to the central point of our lawsuit,” said Sellstrom. “And that is, this was all just a political stunt. It was preying on a very vulnerable population to try to make a political point, denying their humanity in the name of making some political statement. That not only is morally repugnant, it is illegal.”