Defendants added to migrant flight lawsuit

Attorneys claim over $1.5 million of Floridia’s coronavirus relief funds were spent on transport to MV.

Additional defendants have been named in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, after the Sept. 14 transportation of nearly 50 migrants to Martha's Vineyard. — Abigail Rosen

Additional Florida officials, including the woman who persuaded migrants to board a plane to Martha’s Vineyard, have been added as defendants in the complaint against parties responsible for luring nearly 50 Venezuelan and Peruvian migrants onto planes headed to the Island Sept. 14.

The class action lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Boston by Chicago-based organization Alianza Americas on behalf of the migrants transported to Martha’s Vineyard now names Florida public safety “czar” Lawrence Keefe, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ chief of staff James Uthmeier, and the woman allegedly responsible for recruiting migrants for the flights, Perla Huerta, as responsible parties.

Keefe, Uthmeier, and Huerta join Gov. DeSantis, Florida Department of Transportation and its secretary Jared Perdue, transport company Vertol Systems and its president James Montgomerie, and the state of Florida as defendants in the lawsuit. 

DeSantis took credit for the two flights that landed on the Vineyard shortly after the migrants’ arrival, ultimately promising to “exhaust every penny” of Florida’s immigration relocation funds transporting more unsuspecting immigrants to northern “sanctuary” states via a state-funded relocation program. 

The flights took off from San Antonio, Texas, and stopped in Florida and the Carolinas before reaching its final destination at Martha’s Vineyard Airport.

The suit notes that Florida’s Relocation Program, an element of the state’s budget for fiscal year 2022–23 — the “Appropriations Act” — signed by DeSantis on June 2, was budgeted $12 million. 

According to the complaint, the Relocation Program had been illegally funded by federal relief money via American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Coronavirus State and Local Recovery Funds Program (SLRF). 

With said funds, the Florida Department of Transportation “solicited bids from vendors to fly immigrants from Florida to other states,” ultimately selecting Vertol Systems Co. Inc., who were paid over $1.5 million out of the state’s general revenue fund for their part in the scheme. 

The lawsuit claims that Huerta, a U.S. Army veteran who was referred to simply as “Perla” for weeks into the investigation, was hired and directed by Vertol Systems to “carry out a number of [Vertol’s] responsibilities,” including gathering documentation from migrants in San Antonio and coercing them to sign “sham consent-to-transport forms.” Through Huerta, the migrants slated for transportation were provided with meals and lodging prior to departure. 

Defendants allegedly chose to target migrants in Texas, the lawsuit states, after Florida began experiencing “reduced pressure” from immigration, and through messages that showed Huerta and Keefe “sharing screenshots of Google searches” on “what states are immigrants going to.” 

According to the migrants’ representatives, when they inquired about particulars of the flights, Huerta told them the transportation was being funded by “a wealthy anonymous benefactor,” and “churches and foundations.” Additionally, the lawsuit asserts that Huerta was directed to “exclusively [target] Latinx immigrants from South American countries,” despite the U.S. having “substantial numbers of non-Latinx immigrants, including from European, Asian, or African nations.” 

Alianza Americas confirm that all migrants transported to Martha’s Vineyard on Sept. 14 hailed from either Venezuela or Peru.

The lawsuit claims that when DeSantis gave a speech to Republican donors in Orlando on Sept. 9, and confirmed funds for the state’s Relocation Program, the plans for the Sept. 14 flights were already in place. During that speech, DeSantis said, “I do have this money. I want to be helpful. Maybe we will go to Texas and help. Maybe we’ll send [immigrants] to Chicago, Hollywood, Martha’s Vineyard. Who knows?”

Two days before the flights, a text message from Huerta to Keefe and an unknown party updating them on the recruitment read, “Yahtzee!! We’re full,” and was then forwarded directly to DeSantis’s office. 

“The object of this scheme was not to help immigrants find a better life in northern cities,” the complaint states, but to “use political fervor over immigrantion to boost [DeSantis’] national profile.”

Attorneys for the migrants argue that those responsible for the stunt “wanted the residents of Martha’s Vineyard to be unprepared to assist approximately 50 weary immigrants,” in order to “perfect their perverse photo opportunity.” The suit states that DeSantis’ office “ensure[d]” that the footage of the migrants’ arrival be sent to Fox News Channel. 

The lawsuit claims the defendants “did not arrange for anyone on the ground [on] Martha’s Vineyard to help” the migrants, but had “procured” vans to transport them to M.V. Community Services. It remains unclear who was responsible for the transport. 

A number of the migrants flown to the Vineyard suffered additional trauma from being used in a political stunt, the lawsuit argues, as many of the migrants have “suffered emotional and economic harm and irreparable damage to their dignity and autonomy.”

According to the complaint, attempts by a number of individuals to contact Huerta after arriving on the Vineyard failed, leaving many of the stranded individuals and families feeling particularly vulnerable and distrustful. 

The class action alleges that DeSantis and his co-defendants have violated the Fourth and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution, and deprived the migrants of their liberty without due process through manipulation and exploitation, in addition to subjecting them to unlawful discrimination. 

The lawsuit also claims the defendants are guilty of false imprisonment, fraud/deceit, intentional infliction of emotional distress, aiding and abetting, and exceeding the scope of authority. 

The suit also argues that the defendants have illegally used funds that had been designated for state and local relief via ARPA/SLRF, and through that funding had “initiated the Florida Relocation Program with the intention of deceiving immigrants,” and depriving them of their civil rights.

According to the lawsuit, representatives of the migrants have called for the injunction against all defendants named as responsible parties to block similar transports via the relocation program. The complaint seeks a jury trial. 

A separate lawsuit filed on Dec. 1 by the Florida Immigration Coalition, Americans for Immigration Justice, and Hope CommUnity Center in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida argues that through their actions, DeSantis and Perdue have “infring[ed] upon the federal government’s immigration system by creating a separate, parallel immigration system.” 

The complaint claims that the two defendants have violated the Supremacy Clause, which states that federal laws take precedence over state laws, by acting beyond their scope of authority, and request that the court declare the “Appropriation Act” and its use of funds toward the relocation program unconstitutional. 

“The power to determine who should and should not be admitted into the country has long been recognized as an exclusively federal power,” the lawsuit states, arguing that the implementation of the relocation program “impermissibly attempts to authorize the Florida Department of Transportation to determine a person’s immigration status.” 

The suit argues that planning and funding the flights “perpetuates the xenophobia and hate by targeting Latin American and Caribbean migrants,” and state that the parties associated in the scheme “sowed chaos” by their misrepresentation of the intention of the flights, at the direction of DeSantis and Perdue. 


    • andy– I find it amusing that you use the term “frivolous lawsuit” to describe a case where federal monies were blatantly used for something other than they were appropriated for.
      I’m impressed that in just one sentence you manage to not only justify calling the investigation of the misappropriation of federal monies “frivolous” , but also manage to offend people of Hispanic heritage and people who have gender identifications that you would like to “cancel”.

      • Donnie—-In a recent poll, ninety-eight percent of respondents indicated they prefer a term other than “Latinx” to denote their ethnicity, which left only 2 percent preferring Latinx, making it the least-preferred term for Hispanic people among Hispanics themselves. I guess I offended 2 percent of them. Your self righteousness about misappropriated funds is laughable when your own party invented misappropriation.

      • Since you often (rightly) point out the difference between supposition and fact in other’s comments, it must be noted that nothing has been adjudicated about this lawsuit, which while not frivolous, is, in my opinion, political.

    • Don’t bet against this lawsuit. As a former prosecutor of 17 years, and now a civil attorney of over 30 years, getting these asylum seekers—lawfully in the U. S.—on a plane to an unknown location under false assurances thousands of miles away appears to me to be a very actionable lawsuit.

      • I’m not a lawyer, and I bow to your experience, but is there not a big difference between an “actionable” and a “winable” lawsuit, especially with this political hot potato?

      • please stop with the rational facts…it upsets the apple cart. It does amaze me how people want to pick and choose legalities. Misappropriating funds, democrat, republican, purple people eater….its illegal and those people need to be held accountable. “your party started it…” is such a huge cop out

  1. There are millions of Americans who will vote for that goon DeSantis in 2024. The GOP lunacy continues.

  2. I figured that much from you. Libs are suppose to be the tolerant ones but ONLY if you believe in their insanity!

  3. Islanders should be ashamed of how we handled this incident. We totally did not take responsibility for a national crisis and quickly passed the buck on to a nearby community. The immigration crisis is a national emergency. These are not refugees, take a look at them, they are dressed liked tourists from Hyannis!

    • You must not be aware that after being processed though the US government initial review at the border station, they were assisted by charitable organizations that provided many needs, including clothing.

      Just imagine the clothing they arrived with after a 2,500 mile, 3 month trip mostly on foot

    • Wrong, first off you did nothing. Second, they were more than welcomed here given any necessities, fed. Houses, clothes, empathized with and cared for. Then they were moved to a facility that could handle the amount of people. That’s what happened, nothing to be ashamed of, I am proud and grateful the community rose to this crime.

  4. Sad to say you’re right Carla…when will the maga folks realize that there are others in the USA who are Latin American, Black American, Muslim, and who knows what else! …. Caucasian Americans are in the minority now in the USA , and that’s not a bad thing … Additional cultures enrich and strengthen the fiber of what it means to be an American.

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