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Migrant recruiter, transport company, and Fla. officials added as parties to federal lawsuit over Martha’s Vineyard flights

Venezuelan migrants and volunteers gatheed in St. Andrew's Parish House in Martha’s Vineyard on Sept. 15, 2022. Two planes of migrants from Venezuela arrived suddenly the previous night causing the local community to mobilize and create a makeshift shelter at the church.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

More defendants have been added to a federal class-action lawsuit alleging that Florida officials and others lied to migrants about where they were going and the benefits they would receive upon arrival in Martha’s Vineyard last September.

Perla Huerta, the mysterious Army veteran who migrants said recruited and enticed them to board the flights; the Florida-based plane company Vertol Systems and its CEO; Florida’s “public safety czar”; and Governor Ron DeSantis’s chief of staff were named in an 86-page amended complaint filed Tuesday as part of a lawsuit brought by Lawyers for Civil Rights in US District Court in Boston.

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The flights, part of DeSantis’ plan to send migrants to blue states, were coordinated by Vertol. The company was paid more than $1.5 million to carry out the mission, according to Florida public records.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the migrants and Alianza Americas, a network of immigrant-led support organizations across the country. In addition to the class-action case, Florida’s $12 million state-funded migrant relocation program has also become the center of a criminal probe.

The original defendants in the class-action case included DeSantis and the state’s transportation secretary.

The additional parties were added to the suit after new information, released as part of a public records request, revealed that Florida officials and others, including Huerta and Vertol CEO James Montgomerie, were on the ground in Texas weeks before the flights.

A DeSantis spokesperson, Huerta, and Montgomerie did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

“The bottom line is sunshine is the best disinfectant and the sun is shining brightly on what has happened here,” said Rachel M. Self, a Vineyard immigration attorney who has been assisting the migrants who were flown to the island but is not involved in the federal suit.

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The complaint alleges Huerta posed as “a Good Samaritan working on behalf of an anonymous wealthy benefactor” and details several interactions between Huerta and the plaintiffs. Lawyers allege she transported the migrants to hotels and told them they would be provided legal assistance, housing, and employment in a large city in the Northeast such as Boston, New York City, or Washington, D.C.

Ultimately, they received none of those things when they landed in Martha’s Vineyard.

“She affirmatively concealed the true purpose of the flights and that Defendants were behind the operation,” lawyers wrote.

An image of Perla Huerta taken by one of the migrants in San Antonio.

In texts obtained by the Globe and cited in the amended complaint, Huerta, Montgomerie, and Florida officials discussed updates on their travels to Texas and efforts to recruit migrants dating as far back as August.

In one text, Montgomerie told Larry Keefe, DeSantis’ public safety czar, that he had secured 34 migrants to board the flights and “will be at 50 by Tuesday, no problem.”

“The network has grown exponentially!” Montgomerie told Keefe, according to the documents. “We believe we could probably generate another 50 inside 48 hours.”

Two days before the Vineyard flights, Huerta had also texted Keefe, gleefully exclaiming that they had secured enough migrants to fill the two planes: “Yahtzee!! We’re full.”

A separate series of texts revealed that James Uthmeier, the chief of staff for DeSantis, and Luis Saenz, who served in that role for Texas Governor Greg Abbott, exchanged messages sharing Keefe’s contact information. Those texts were obtained from Texas by the Florida Center for Government Accountability and provided to the Globe.

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Lawyers for Civil Rights said it is “keeping all options on the table” as more information emerges in the case, especially regarding those who were involved in planning what has largely been regarded as a political stunt.

“It is important to make sure that the perpetrators of the scheme can be held accountable,” Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, told the Globe in an interview.


Samantha J. Gross can be reached at samantha.gross@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @samanthajgross.