Soon after landing on Martha’s Vineyard last month, the Venezuelan migrants said, they knew they’d been deceived. The promises — free passage to Boston, jobs, refuge — made by the woman they knew only as “Perla” were clearly empty.
She also seemed to have vanished. When they messaged her on WhatsApp, they got no response.
Now, the San Antonio sheriff’s office appears to be on her trail, as it investigates whether crimes were committed when she allegedly recruited nearly 50 migrants for the trip from Texas to Massachusetts. The sheriff’s office believes the recruiter is Perla Huerta, a former US Army counterintelligence specialist and combat medic, according to a person briefed on the investigation.
A spokesperson for the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office in San Antonio said Monday the investigation into the matter is ongoing and the office has “not identified any persons of interest at this time.”
Massachusetts lawyers representing the migrants allege that “Perla” defrauded their clients by inducing them to board the airplanes under false pretenses. According to a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of most of the migrants, “Perla” said they would receive housing and cash assistance in “sanctuary states,” and furnished fabricated documents to bolster her claims.
Even before she was publicly identified — The New York Times first published Huerta’s name Sunday — attention had focused on her alleged role in the scheme, and the mystery of her identity.
Migrants said she had introduced herself only as “Perla” and held herself out as a kind of guardian angel. Outside an immigration resource center in San Antonio, they said, she approached Venezuelans and promised a better life up north.
She seemed to be targeting Venezuelans, in particular. Carlos, a migrant who did not want his last name published, said Monday that when Huerta approached him in a white van outside a Walgreens, her first question was, “Are you Venezuelan?”
When he said yes, she drove him to a hotel and put him and other migrants up for the night.
“I thought it was some kind of special program for Venezuelan immigration,” he said. “But it was all a trick.”
Millions of Venezuelans have left their home country in recent years amidst political upheaval and economic instability, and many have headed for the United States and applied for asylum. According to federal government figures, more than 25,000 Venezuelans were stopped at the US southern border in August of this year, four times more than in August 2021.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican and possible 2024 presidential candidate, immediately took credit for sending the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, saying the federal government’s asylum policy places an undue burden on border states.
“The transportation of the immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard was done on a voluntary basis,” the governor’s office said in a recent statement. “The immigrants were homeless, hungry, and abandoned . . . Florida’s program gave them a fresh start in a sanctuary state and these individuals opted to take advantage of chartered flights to Massachusetts.”
Last year, DeSantis signed a budget that included $12 million to ship unauthorized immigrants out of Florida. That money appears to have been used for the operation allegedly spearheaded by Huerta in Texas — possibly in violation of the law that allocated the funds.
Huerta served for 20 years as a combat medic and counterintelligence specialist, according to an Army spokesperson. She deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan before her retirement in August.
The same month, she listed her Tampa house for sale, according to public records. Around that time, a neighbor, Dan Palmer, said he asked her what she planned to do next and she gave a somewhat vague answer. “Well, I might go to Europe,” he recalled her saying, in a phone interview Monday.
Last week, Palmer said, he received a call from a deputy in the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office seeking information about Huerta. (The Boston Globe has seen text messages Palmer exchanged with the deputy, and the deputy confirmed to the Globe that he is working on the case.) He sent the deputy a picture of his neighbor to confirm her identity. On Monday, when a Globe reporter showed him a photo of “Perla” taken by a migrant in Texas, Palmer confirmed that the woman was his neighbor, Perla Huerta. Palmer hasn’t seen Huerta in weeks, he said.
Migrants who arrived on Martha’s Vineyard haven’t seen or heard from her either. Carlos was among the migrants who contacted her, angry and confused after arriving on Martha’s Vineyard on Sept. 14. He said he sent her a recorded audio message over WhatsApp, the app he had used to communicate with her after their encounter at Walgreens in Texas.
The app indicated that she listened to his message, he said. But she never responded.
Almost all of the migrants are now housed at a military base in Cape Cod. Some had already applied for asylum before they were sent to Massachusetts. Their next moves are uncertain.
Few of the migrants have significant personal connections in the United States and some are still getting their bearings after an arduous journey, lawyers said.
“They’ve been through a lot of trauma starting with conditions in their home country and continuing during their travel across Central America and Mexico and finally the deplorable turn of events when they reached Texas,” said Oren Sellstrom, a lawyer representing the migrants in the class action lawsuit.
Carlos said he knows no one he can stay with in the United States and doesn’t know where he’ll go next. A spokesperson for the Massachusetts National Guard said all of the migrants will leave the base by the end of October, according to WBZ-TV.
But for the moment, at least, Carlos said he feels he is dealing with people he can trust. “Everyone here — on the island, on the Cape, the military personnel — have been very good,” he said.
As for “Perla” and her motivations, though, he remains flummoxed. “I can’t say why she did this,” he said.
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Mike Damiano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.