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A Boston-based law firm suing Florida’s governor for his scheme to transport asylum-seekers from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard under false pretenses has added Perla Huerta — the San Antonio woman accused of recruiting the migrants — as a defendant in its class-action lawsuit.
Lawyers for Civil Rights, the law firm that filed the lawsuit in a federal court in Massachusetts in September, initially had known Huerta only as “Perla.” The firm amended its lawsuit on Tuesday, saying “Huerta was the lead recruiter tasked with finding immigrants in San Antonio and transporting them to Martha’s Vineyard.”
The New York Times and other news outlets had previously identified the woman as Perla Haydee Huerta, 43.
Three migrants represented by lawyers are identified in the lawsuit as Yanet, Pablo and Jesus Doe. They are requesting damages, as well as an injunction blocking Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state from coercing immigrants to travel by “fraud and misrepresentation.”
The lawsuit claims Huerta lied to the migrants about the help they would receive at their destination, including help getting jobs and with their immigration cases, if they agreed to get on the planes. The lawsuit says the migrants felt helpless, confused and anxious after they landed on the small island and when they reached out to Huerta by phone, she ignored or dismissed their concerns.
On Sept. 14, Huerta, a former combat medic and counterintelligence agent in the U.S. Army, gathered about 50 migrants she had previously recruited and gave them each a $10 McDonald’s gift card in exchange for a signed consent form, according to the lawsuit. Inside the charter plane, the migrants, many of whom were Venezuelans, were given a brochure with a list of organizations that provide social services the migrants were not eligible for, according to the lawsuit.
The next day at a news conference, DeSantis claimed credit for sending the planes from Texas to Massachusetts. He has said that it was part of the state’s program to relocate migrants to a “sanctuary destination.” The Florida Legislature set aside $12 million for the effort, and DeSantis has spent more than $1.5 million so far on the flights, according to state records.
The amended complaint also cites text messages between Huerta and staffers for DeSantis detailing their plans to recruit migrants.
The Florida governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to an email from The Texas Tribune seeking comment.
The lawsuit claims that the governor’s chief of staff, James Uthmeier, and Florida’s public safety adviser, Lawrence Keefe, who are also listed as defendants in the lawsuit, were part of the plan. Uthmeier also texted Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s former chief of staff, Luis Saenz, saying that Keefe would be the point of contact about the operation, the lawsuit says.
Keefe had come to San Antonio with Huerta in early September to scope out places where they could find migrants to recruit, such as churches, a transportation office and a convenience store parking lot, the lawsuit says.
Immigration rights groups and Democrats have accused Republicans of exploiting migrants to score political points. Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar announced a criminal investigation into the flights, saying he believed a crime had occurred but declining to name suspects.
The sheriff’s office didn’t immediately respond to an email from the Tribune seeking the status of the investigation.
Disclosure: New York Times has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Correction, Nov. 30, 2022: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the migrants were flown to Massachusetts against their will. They boarded the plane voluntarily but under false pretenses.