Venezuelan migrants who came to Texas seeking asylum--and were flown to Martha's Vineyard by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis--are suing Florida, its governor, two of his top aides, and a mysterious military counterintelligence agent named Perla.
Boston-based nonprofit Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the migrants in U.S. District Court. The identities of the migrants were protected with pseudonyms but details of their harrowing journeys were revealed. Also named in the suit is Florida Department of Transportation Jared Perdue and a woman named Perla who is accused of giving the migrants, many with scarce access to food, McDonald's gift cards and false, misleading information to get them to agree to go to Florida where they would become unwitting participants in DeSantis' stunt.
In October, CNN identified the mysterious Perla who migrants described as Perla Huerta, who served as a counterintelligence agent and U.S. Army combat medic specialist until August. She was in Iraq and Afghanistan and held the rank of master sergeant. A migrant who had been homeless and living on San Antonio's streets told CNN that a woman named Perla had given him food and clothes in exchange for flying to Florida.
Lawyers for Civil Rights are including DeSantis chief of staff James Uthmeier and public safety czar, Larry Keefe, as defendants in an amended complaint.
The complaint says migrants fled Venezuela's violence and political upheaval: "to the United States in a desperate attempt to protect themselves and their families from gangs, police, and state-sponsored violence and the oppression of political dissent," the complaint says. "Defendants and their unidentified accomplices designed and executed a premeditated, fraudulent, and illegal scheme centered on exploiting this vulnerability for the sole purpose of advancing their own personal, financial, and political interests."
A migrant with the complaint IDs only as "Jesus Doe" had just gotten a federal notice that he would be moved from Texas to Virginia to begin a resettlement process in October 2022. It was good news because Jesus was homeless and sleeping in a shelter for recent immigrants or on the street nearby. He was approached by an official who told him her name was “Perla”.
She asked that he share his federal immigration notices with her so she could help him like she had helped many other Venezuelans. Perla told Jesus that she could get him on a plane to Washington, D.C., or Boston, and he could stay free in a hotel.
On September 14, at 7 a.m., Jesus and several dozen Venezuelans met Perla's assistant, who offered them each a $10 McDonald’s gift card. Jesus had an uncertain grasp of written English and the document was only partially in Spanish.
He was hungry. He signed. It was an agreement to be flown by DeSantis.
The complaint says that Florida officials gave the hungry migrants who landed there with few funds for food, $10 McDonald's gift cards to elicit their cooperation again. The suit claims that Florida officials made false promises about housing, jobs, free transportation to job interviews, free education, and financial assistance if the migrants would agree to fly to Boston or Washington, D.C.
"Next, the Defendants put class members up for free in hotels, sequestered away from the migrant center, and from the possibility of actual good Samaritans finding out how the class members were being abused," the complaint continues.
Instead, the migrants were unloaded without food or water at Martha's Vineyard, where local civic and faith-based groups, who had no idea the migrants were coming, fed and housed them.
While they were still in flight, the lawsuit says migrant passengers were given red, shiny folders with brochures jammed with free services Massachusetts gives to migrants. Unfortunately, the information was false and worthless. Massachusetts did not print the brochures. The migrants' lawyers believe DeSantis staff cobbled together the brochures by lifting chunks of Massachusetts refugee resettlement websites, ignoring the fact that the information applied only to specific members of the refugee community.
The complaint accuses DeSantis of using Covid relief funds to relocate the Texas migrants, not an approved purpose for the funds/ The complaint says Florida "paid $615,000 for privately chartered planes ($12,300 per passenger)" to fly the migrants to Martha's Vineyard.