The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mysteries, legal challenges follow Fla. Gov. Ron DeSantis’s migrant flights

Asylum-seekers describe being deceived by a mysterious recruiter named Perla and a carefully crafted operation that had little concern for their safety and welfare

Venezuelan migrants stand outside St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Edgartown, Mass., after they were flown to Martha's Vineyard by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette/Reuters)

When Jose joined the migrants behind a McDonald’s on a sunbaked San Antonio street earlier this month, he was running out of options. The 27-year-old had survived the perilous trek from Venezuela and safely crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, but now he had no place to go.

Like the others behind the restaurant on Sept. 8, he’d been kicked out of a shelter after three days. Immigration officials had warned them they couldn’t work legally yet. No one had any money to get to distant cities where friends or family might help.

That’s when a smiling blond-haired woman in a cowboy hat approached. Her name was Perla, she said. And she could fix all their troubles.

It was a pitch Perla had been making to other newly homeless migrants huddled on San Antonio’s streets. She drove a rented white SUV and promised food, jobs and transportation.

Jose trusted her. For the first time since coming to the United States, he felt safe. “We thought she was a good person,” he told The Washington Post.

Nearly two weeks later, though, Jose is one of dozens of migrants who now question Perla’s efforts to entice them onto a flight that unexpectedly ended on the wealthy island of Martha’s Vineyard — a political operation engineered by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to gin up outrage over the United States’ border crisis.

Much remains unknown about the effort. While DeSantis has embraced his role in staging the flight, arguing that it protected Florida from “negative ramifications” of a border crossing surge, his office has been less clear about the purpose of nearly $1.6 million paid to a contractor, according to state records, and the role of state officials in developing the plan.

But Post interviews with several migrants directly recruited by Perla, as well as court documents and state records, paint a picture of a carefully orchestrated, taxpayer-funded operation with little apparent concern for the interests of the migrants caught in the middle. Florida officials began researching Texas’s migrant situation weeks before the flights, and a contractor with ties to the DeSantis administration later handled the efforts. Some migrants, meanwhile, say they were misled into signing documents after being lured into the trip with food and hotel stays.

“I don’t like the way they treated us,” said Jose, who made the journey to the border with two stuffed animals given to him as a gift by his 5-year old son, whom he left behind with relatives. “We’re human beings.”

DeSantis has reaped political benefits, grabbing center stage on an issue that once helped propel Donald Trump to the White House and putting Democrats on defense over the nation’s chaotic and overstressed immigration system. Republican leaders have embraced his tactics and begun fundraising off pledges to fly migrants to other blue-state enclaves.

But DeSantis also faces legal challenges, including an investigation by a Texas sheriff, who called it a “predatory” operation, a federal class-action lawsuit by the migrants alleging a “premeditated, fraudulent, and illegal scheme,” and a Democratic lawmaker’s state lawsuit challenging the governor’s use of a $12 million migrant relocation fund.

The governor has brushed off the claims, saying all of the migrants got on the plane voluntarily.

“It is opportunistic that activists would use illegal immigrants for political theater,” his office said in a statement. “Florida’s program gave them a fresh start in a sanctuary state.”

Days before the flight landed in Martha’s Vineyard, DeSantis had given not-so-subtle hints about his plans. Speaking to a room of major GOP donors at the Four Seasons hotel in Orlando, he mused about going to Texas to “help.” Border crossers might be rounded up and sent somewhere — possibly to the wealthy island of Martha’s Vineyard. “Who knows?” he teased.

DeSantis gave GOP donors a glimpse of plans for migrant flights

An extraordinary plan had already been set in motion.

The backdrop was the record surge of migrants who have crossed the southern U.S. border this year, driven by soaring violence and poverty in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. Last week, border authorities topped 2 million arrests for the year, the most ever.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has responded to the influx by dispatching thousands of migrants on buses to far flung, Democratic-rich locales. In August, Florida law enforcement officials traveled to the Texas border cities of Del Rio and Eagle Pass to meet with staff from two Texas agencies involved in the state’s migrant busing program.

Florida officials “reached out to better understand the mission, see how it is being carried out and learn more on efforts they may be able to replicate in their own state,” said Ericka Miller, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety.

A Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokesperson declined to say whether the Texas trips were tied to the migrant flights this month, citing an ongoing grand jury investigation into illegal immigration.

Thousands of those who make it into the United States have ended up at the Migrant Resource Center in downtown San Antonio. The shelter can house 600 people and has served more than 24,000 migrants since it opened in July.

In early September, it was packed as usual with new arrivals. Yerkyn Torres, 36, had left behind his wife and two children in Venezuela to spare them the arduous journey. A 40-year-old woman named Estrella had come from Peru with her 7-year-old daughter. “All I wanted was for my daughter to have a better life,” who spoke on the condition that she be identified only by her first name for fear of retribution from those involved in the migrant flights, said in Spanish. “That’s all I was thinking as I got her across that river.”

As Jose gave his account in Spanish of what happened, accompanied by his lawyer Julio Henríquez, he spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his middle name because of fear of retribution against family in Venezuela and from the Americans who he says misled him.

Jose had been a petrochemical engineering student in Venezuela but dropped out when he couldn’t afford the tuition. Then in December, he said a criminal gang stabbed him in front of his aunt’s candy shop, where he worked, allegedly because his family was linked to anti-government groups.

He escaped in February, traveling by bus and on foot to Peru, where his grandmother had taken his son. But he said the gang was still after him, so in June, his family paid for a bus ticket to Colombia to begin the journey that finally brought him to San Antonio.

He described fording knee-deep mud in the jungles of the Darién Gap linking Colombia and Panama. He hiked past the corpses of migrants who died during the same journey, he said, and lost his phone in a river. Then he walked and hitchhiked through Central America and Mexico into the border city of Matamoros, across a bridge from Brownsville, Tex., where he surrendered to authorities and was detained for several days.

Like many other migrants, Jose lacked a plan when he was forced to leave the shelter after three days. Immigration officers had released him after an aunt’s friend in Philadelphia promised to take him in, but he had no money to get there. Immigration officers told him he had to check in with them on Sept. 28 in Philadelphia or face deportation.

For now, he slept on the street.

Enter Perla.

Perla never gave migrants her last name. But according to the migrants, she was as persuasive as they were desperate. Speaking in English and Spanish, Jose said, she offered them a 90-day stay in a “sanctuary” city that welcomes migrants. She said they had steady jobs for 50 people in fields such as cleaning and carpentry.

“We had been living on the street for two days, and we were getting desperate,” Estrella said of her encounter with Perla.

When Jose met her outside the McDonald’s, he told her he needed to reach Philadelphia, where an aunt’s friend had offered to put him up.

“I can take you where you’re going,” he said Perla told him. “She was very nice. It looked like everything she was saying was true.”

She left and didn’t come back for two days. Then, on a Saturday afternoon, she returned and offered to take eight people to a hotel. Jose jumped at the chance.

The La Quinta was a respite. There were real beds, a swimming pool and a breakfast buffet. Perla brought them pizza and hamburgers at night. “I could shower, I could get dressed,” Jose said. He swam in the pool.

Perla offered migrants $10 McDonald’s gift cards if they signed waivers in which “an entire paragraph about liability and transport” and “language specifying that the journey would take place from Texas to Massachusetts” was not completely translated into Spanish, according to the class-action suit. Jose said the forms he signed were in English and that he couldn’t read them.

Perla told them she would return early the next day, Jose said. About 50 people would board buses to the airport and then take two chartered planes to Massachusetts. “I just wanted to get to Philadelphia,” he said.

The next morning, Sept. 14, they were taken to an airport. There was no security, and no X-ray machine. It was Jose’s first time on an airplane and he began to feel uneasy. He turned, searching for Perla.

“I saw that she was saying, ‘Ciao!’ ” he said. “I said, ‘You’re not coming with us?’ ” She said no, but others, someone of Cuban descent and Puerto Rican or Dominican descent, would guide them.

There was confusion about where they were going. One migrant asked if they could go to New York and was told they were headed to Washington, D.C., or another “sanctuary state,” according to the class-action suit. Perla told Jose they were headed to Massachusetts, he said.

First, though, the planes stopped in Crestview, Fla. The small Panhandle town is near the Destin, Fla., offices of Vertol Systems, a politically connected aviation company. Larry Keefe, DeSantis’s “public safety czar” who heads his immigration crackdown, previously represented Vertol in a dozen lawsuits, the Miami Herald found. Neither Keefe nor a Vertol executive immediately responded to requests for comment.

Under the “relocation program for unauthorized aliens,” the state Department of Transportation paid Vertol $615,000 on Sept. 8, and then another $950,000 on Sept. 19, public records show. The payments exceed the typical cost of a charter flight, experts said, but the governor’s office and the company have not responded to questions about how exactly the money was spent.

One of the pilots was of Colombian descent, Jose said, and the staff served sodas and crackers.

Some migrants worried they were being taken to a remote location. Would it be safe? Just a few minutes before landing, the pilot’s voice came over the loudspeaker: The destination was Martha’s Vineyard. “That was the first time we found out where we’d be going,” Torres said. Many had never heard of the island known as a summer sanctuary for the well-to-do.

The passengers were handed shiny red folders. Among the contents: a brochure titled “Massachusetts Refugee Benefits” imprinted with a proposed redesign of the state flag that a resident uploaded to the internet on a whim, according to the Boston Globe, and a rudimentary U.S. map with an arrow drawn from Central Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. “YOU ARE HERE... ESTA AQUI.”

There was also a “Welcome to Massachusetts” map that identified landmarks irrelevant to the migrants’ urgent needs, including Lucy Vincent Beach and the Featherstone Center for the Arts.

The planes landed around 3 p.m. “Unannounced, except at most, for the flights’ notification to the local air traffic controller,” according to the class-action suit.

When the migrants arrived, a black van was waiting for them outside, Jose said. It dropped the migrants off outside of the nonprofit Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. A woman who answered the door didn’t speak Spanish, and her look of surprise sent the group into a panic, Jose said. She had not been expecting them. They were not supposed to be there.

“People wanted to run away,” Jose said. But when they looked at the map in the red folder, he said, they realized, “we were surrounded by pure water.”

Torres started to think he had been tricked by the government into missing his upcoming immigration date in Texas. “I just want to start working so I can find a place to sleep,” he said in Spanish.

“If I tell you how I felt, I want to cry,” Jose said. “I felt destroyed inside, tricked, frightened. I didn’t know if they were going to put me in jail, if they’d deport me. I just wanted to get to Philadelphia.”

Migrants tried to reach Perla, but they said she didn’t pick up. So they tried the Venezuelan man who had been recruiting them alongside her. He forwarded a recorded voice message from Perla urging the migrants not to worry.

“They have to take charge of you,” she said. “Stay calm. They will take care of you. You have the numbers of the churches. Call the churches.”

Jose and other migrants were furious at the betrayal, but he said the people on Martha’s Vineyard quickly assuaged their fears. A man who spoke Spanish told them not to worry. “He said don’t despair. We didn’t expect you, but you’re here. We’re going to help you,” Jose recalled.

Lisa Belcastro, coordinator of a homeless shelter at a nearby church, began mobilizing dozens of volunteers. Local residents donated food, clothing and suitcases. Belcastro made sure there were enough beds. Belcastro wanted to make sure the group got a good night’s sleep, so she stayed overnight. Lights out at 10 p.m. “They aren’t just refugees or numbers,” she said. “They’re human beings that we care about.”

Lawyers worked to make sure migrants could update their addresses, to prevent being punished for missing immigration appointments and to pursue asylum claims.

Shortly before midnight, a deputy press secretary for DeSantis, Jeremy Redfern, tweeted a picture of former president Barack Obama’s home on Martha’s Vineyard: “7 bedrooms with 8 and a half bathrooms in a 6,892-square-foot house on nearly 30 acres. Plenty of space.”

At a news conference the next morning, DeSantis was put on the spot. “Gov. DeSantis, can you elaborate on reports of deploying dozens of migrants over to Martha’s Vineyard?” asked a television reporter, as the crowd cheered.

DeSantis owned up. “If you have folks that are inclined to think Florida is a good place, our message to them is we are not a sanctuary state,” he said. “And yes, we will help facilitate that transport for you to be able to go to greener pastures.”

Rachel Self, a Boston lawyer aiding the migrants, said they had been told “there was a surprise present for them” upon arrival. “This was obviously a sadistic lie,” she said.

Meanwhile, recruiters were again looking for migrants outside the San Antonio shelter, witnesses said.

The Rev. Gavin Rogers of Travis Park Church in San Antonio said his staff was contacted by migrants last week who had been recruited by a woman calling herself “Perla” and sent to another La Quinta hotel. They were waiting for a flight to Delaware that was ultimately canceled, the Miami Herald reported, in a hotel room booked in Perla’s name. Rogers said a bus took some of the migrants back to the shelter. “Some reached out to us, and we did offer them a place to be,” Rogers said. “Some decided to go their own ways.” DeSantis’s office has not said whether the canceled Delaware flight was part of the state’s operation.

After two nights at the church shelter on Martha’s Vineyard, it was time to get on another bus. This one would take the migrants to a ferry on their way to a nearby military base. Many cried. Migrants filed out of the parish to hugs from volunteers and new cellphones. Donors had provided underwear, purple T-shirts and hats from the local high school and Boston Red Sox apparel. They cheered as each person boarded.

“Without these people here, I don’t know where we’d be,” Eliomar Aguero, 30, said. “Now, we just want to find jobs. But we are just so relieved to be here.”

On the base, Jose said he is meeting with lawyers and attending medical appointments. He said he is eager to learn English and pursue his immigration case. “We feel free,” he said.

But he is upset with DeSantis and the “remote control” team of Perla and other recruiters who he said tricked them into getting on the planes. The lawyers helped him switch his court case from Philadelphia to Boston. The friend who was going to take him in has moved away, so he is hoping to find a permanent place to live in Massachusetts.

“The fear I have is that these are political problems, you know,” he said. “We’re not objects so that they operate us this way.”

Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff, Alice Crites and Lori Rozsa contributed to this report.

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