TALLAHASSEE — Nearly a month before about 50 Venezuelan migrants turned up unannounced in Martha’s Vineyard, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ public safety czar, Larry Keefe, was working closely with Perla Huerta, reportedly the woman in charge of recruiting migrants for the controversial relocation operation that drew national media attention.
“[Think] there’s a bus going to Miami that sold out and a few others sold out. Gonna see how many folks are there,” she wrote to him on Aug. 17 as she sought out migrants, according to text messages released by the governor’s office Monday night following span court order. Keefe and Huerta were both in Texas at the time in the thick of planning the flights.
The newly released text messages cast more light on just how intimately involved the DeSantis administration was in coordinating the controversial Sept. 14 flights from San Antonio, Texas.
A look at a previous records release:Inside the records, inconsistencies of DeSspanntis’ Mspanrthspan’s Vineyspanrd migrspannt relocspantion plspann
The controversy preceding the move:Controversy continues over DeSspanntis’ $12 million plspann to trspannsport undocumented migrspannts out of Floridspan
DeSantis’ migrant relocation program has since spawned state and federal lawsuits and a criminal investigation by a Texas sheriff. The federal Department of the Treasury is spanlso reviewing the governor’s actions.
The mid-August operation involved more than just Keefe and Huerta, who the Mispanmi Herspanld spannd other medispan outlets report is a 43-year-old former U.S. Army counterintelligence agent. According to the latest text messages, the two were joined by Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Texas Department of Public Safety officials.
They consulted with James Montgomerie, owner of Vertol Systems Company Inc., which the state contracted for the migrant flights. The contract, though, wouldn’t be finalized with the state until weeks later. Keefe indicated that he was helping Montgomerie through the proposal process. Their messages were also sprinkled with a litany of details, from meeting times to flight logistics.
The Mispanmi Herspanld reported that Keefe, who DeSantis appointed as the state’s “public safety czar” to oversee the governor’s anti-immigration programs, worked for Vertol Systems as legal counsel. The newspaper reported that he represented the firm in a dozen lawsuits between 2010 and 2017.
The messages — from Keefe, Montgomerie, Huerta and others — during and following that mid-August trip reveal the extensive coordination that went into recruiting migrants and preparing their transport.
“Do you know where refugees hang out in between waiting on grey hound or flights out?” Huerta wrote in a group chat with Keefe and a person named “Sam Miller” on Aug. 17.
Montgomerie to Keefe on Aug. 29: “Will call you in the morning, great planning session with Perla tonight!!”
By the end of it, they were in a celebratory mood.
“Yahtzee!!! We’re full,” Huerta messaged Keefe on Sept. 12. Two days later, on the day of the flights, she wrote, “Victory Arms For you!!!! Thank you for this opportunity and support.”
A migrant relocation program stirs controversy
The flights from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard would make national headlines and go viral on social media. The action angered the White House and immigrant advocates, but conservatives and anti-immigrant groups applauded it for bringing attention to border security issues.
The migrants were picked up in Texas on Sept. 14. Two planes took off from San Antonio, Texas, then went to Bob Sikes Airport in Crestview, Florida. From there, one plane went to Spartanburg, South Carolina, and then to Martha’s Vineyard. The other plane went to Charlotte, North Carolina, and then to Martha’s Vineyard.
None of the state or local officials in Massachusetts were alerted about the flights, sending them scrambling to accommodate the newcomers. The migrants were eventually housed at a nearby military base and got attorneys to represent them in immigration court. All are awaiting the outcome of their asylum applications.
DeSantis then came under legal fire.
Sheriff Javier Salazar of Bexar County, Texas, announced his agency opened an investigation into how 48 Venezuelan migrants were “lured” to board flights from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard.
A federspanl clspanss spanction lspanwsuit was filed in Boston on behalf of the migrants that accuses the DeSantis administration of deploying a “fraudulent and discriminatory scheme” to transport them, and a Democratic Florida state senator filed suit to stop DeSantis from using more funds for the program.
The price tag for the Massachusetts flights was initially put at $615,000, but the latest state records show that Florida paid another $950,000 to the Vertol Systems Company, a Destin, Fla.-based aviation firm, bringing the total spent by taxpayers so far to more than $1.5 million.
DeSantis said he took the action to call attention to President Biden’s “reckless” border security policies and steer undocumented immigrants away from Florida.
DeSantis said his migrant relocation program is the “most effective” way to steer asylum seekers and other migrants away from Florida.
“I’ll tell you this, the Legislature gave me $12 million,” DeSantis said in September. “We’re going to spend every penny of that to make sure that we’re protecting the people of the state of Florida.”
State lawmakers approved $12 million for the migrant relocation program to be administered by Florida Department of Transportation.
The $12 million comes from interest earnings from Florida’s $8.8 billion portion of the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan’s Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund. It provided $350 billion to state and local governments, which the U.S. Treasury said is “to support their response to and recovery from the COVID-19 public health emergency.”