Once she was known only as Perla. But now the woman identified by many of the migrants who landed on Martha’s Vineyard last month as the person who promised them jobs and housing on the other side of a plane ride has been identified.
She is Perla Huerta, according to sources close to the San Antonio sheriff’s office investigation, as reported Monday by The New York Times. She spent two decades in the Army, including stints in military counterintelligence and deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, military officials confirmed. She was discharged in August and resides in Tampa.
The question at hand is who will be the first to haul her before a grand jury? Which prosecutor will begin to unravel the real story, not just of how 48 human beings got to be flown more than 2,000 miles to be used as stage props in a political campaign for Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, but whether laws — state and federal — might have been broken in the process.
Thus far an investigation is underway in San Antonio, where the Venezuelan migrants were recruited, a civil rights lawsuit has been filed on their behalf in federal court in Boston, and now there is a good case to be made in Florida for the possible misuse of state funds.
No question that as far back as June, when DeSantis signed the state’s $109.9 billion budget — the “Freedom First Budget,” it was called by his office — he was planning to use immigration issues to advance his presidential ambitions. The Republican-dominated Legislature was more than willing to go along, approving $12 million to create a program “within the Florida Department of Transportation to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens out of Florida.”
“Florida stands against illegal human trafficking whether it is being carried out by common criminals or by the federal government by prohibiting contracts and cooperation,” the budget document issued by DeSantis’ office said.
No doubt the irony of loading up two planes of men, women, and children and dropping them on an island off the Massachusetts coast — an act that itself raises substantial legal issues possibly related to trafficking — is lost on the governor’s office.
Regardless, by late August, DeSantis’ long feared influx of migrants had not appeared in Florida.
Unlike in Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott has bused thousands of migrants to Washington, D.C., and New York, DeSantis told reporters in Tallahassee that “we haven’t seen what I was expecting that we would see” in Florida.
So what’s a politically ambitious politician to do with $12 million?
The answer was apparently to go to Texas and find migrants in San Antonio, which is where Huerta enters the picture. First she finds a Venezuelan migrant to help recruit fellow migrants for the trip north — a man who told The Times, “I was also lied to,” adding, “If I had known, I would not have gotten involved.” Many were recruited for little more than the price of a $10 McDonald’s gift card and a stay at the nearby La Quinta before the flight.
The charter planes were operated by Vertol Systems, a company with deep Republican connections (Republican Representative Matt Gaetz once served as their lawyer), which, according to state records, was paid $615,000 on Sept. 8 and $950,000 less than two weeks later. The flights to the Vineyard were on Sept. 14.
Democratic state Senator Jason Pizzo filed suit in Florida state court to halt further use of state funds on similar flights, noting the DeSantis administration “can’t even comply” with the rules they set in their own budget for its use.
“I have been doing this long enough to know that the State of Florida is being deliberately opaque about this incident,” said Michael Barfield, director of public access at the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog group. “I do believe there is a misuse of state funds.”
And that’s yet another reason to get Huerta before a grand jury.
Also emerging as a key player in this all-too-human drama is Larry Keefe, who previously did legal work for Vertol and who now serves as DeSantis’ public safety czar charged with heading the governor’s anti-immigration efforts.
Keefe represents another possible link in the chain of circumstances that brought a frightened and bewildered group of people to our state.
Cape-area lawmakers, Senator Julian Cyr and Representative Dylan Fernandes, last month asked for a Justice Department investigation. They are still waiting for an answer.
At the same time, Lawyers for Civil Rights, which provided free legal services to the migrants when they landed, sued DeSantis, the Florida Transportation Department and other unnamed defendants on their behalf for “luring Plaintiffs by exploiting their most basic needs,” and making “false promises and false representations that if Plaintiffs and class members were willing to board airplanes to other states, they would receive employment, housing, educational opportunities, and other like assistance upon their arrival.”
The warm welcome and the potential for a genuinely happy outcome for the 48 migrants can’t erase the terror they experienced landing in a strange place and the possible fraud perpetrated on them and on the taxpayers of Florida.
Justice demands that this not go unanswered.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.