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Sundial Now: Exposé of migrant flights to Martha's Vineyard reveals deception and pain

Carl Juste
Miami Herald
Venezuelan migrants wait for the arrival of the U.S. Border Patrol after crossing the Rio Grande, Sept. 18, 2022.

The need is great at a San Antonio, Texas, migrant shelter housing mostly Venezuelans who recently crossed the U.S. southern border.

It’s from there that almost 50 migrants were recruited and flown to Martha’s Vineyard in September through a contentious Florida migrant relocation program that many described as an election-year political stunt by Governor Ron DeSantis.

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Reporter Sarah Blaskey, who visited the shelter many times during her eye-opening recent Miami Herald exposé of the scheme, called it 'purgatory'. “It's a place where people are trying to leave,” she said.

In the latest episode of Sundial Now, she shared how they discovered that the operation was linked to DeSantis’ top aides — and was funded by Florida taxpayers. Blaskey believes the story transcends the political firestorm it created.

“I think the story is broader, right? This is a story about the immigrant experience, especially right now for Venezuelans who are coming there, making this incredible journey, and then what happens to them next," she said.

The shelter is only a temporary solution for migrants. Many need help getting to other locations in the U.S. where they might have family or work opportunities.

Some of the migrants there need help getting access to essentials, like food and clothing. So when they were told jobs, housing and other resources would be just a flight away to the famous northeast vacation town, the decision was easy.

The night before going on the plane, they signed consent forms saying they were voluntarily participating in this clandestine relocation program, according to the Miami Herald’s investigation.

The Venezuelan migrants processed at this shelter are paroled into the country. That means they are in the U.S. legally, waiting for an immigration hearing, but they don’t have work permits.

“Maybe they came with bags, but they lost them along the way. It's a very long journey,” said Blaskey.

“The month or two-month journey up through Colombia to Panama, through a jungle there that everyone describes as the most horrifying part of their trip; then up through Central America to Mexico, where you're dealing with gangs and the police who will send you back if they catch you.”

Carl Juste
Miami Herald
Migrants cross the street outside San Antonio’s Migrant Resource Center to look through donated boxes of clothes and momentarily escape the confines of the city’s only migrant shelter.

Blaskey spoke with dozens of people who were living in the shelter. They’re only allowed to stay there three days, and they wear wristbands that have the date they entered the shelter — written in Sharpie.

“People get there and they think, ‘Okay, I'm here. I put all of this on the line. Now what?’ And that's actually a really tricky question.”

Recruiters on the ground involved with Florida’s relocation program were there to answer this question. The Herald spoke with Emmanuel, a Venezuelan migrant, who also recently crossed the border. He was not interested in leaving San Antonio but he knew other migrants who were and he was set on helping those who wanted to leave get on a flight.

Emmanuel was recruited by a woman named Perla Huerta, who is a retired U.S. Army counterintelligence agent. She promised him that the migrants on these flights would be better off.

“He believed it… for a certain amount of time, until things started falling apart,” said Blaskey.

When the migrants arrived in Martha’s Vineyard they were not welcomed by the opportunities and resources that they had been promised. Instead, they were caught in the middle of a political crossfire.

Governor Ron DeSantis swiftly took responsibility for the flights, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office in Texas opened a criminal investigation into the flights and Huerta disappeared, including her social media.

Emmanuel is in Texas cooperating with the investigation, according to the Miami Herald's reporting.

Carl Juste
Miami Herald
Emmanuel, 27, (last name withheld) has been moved to several locations by his attorneys since cooperating with Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar’s criminal investigation.

Behind the recruiters on the ground was the DeSantis administration and Florida taxpayer’s money, the Miami Herald discovered.

“The money that was used actually came from the interest generated off of the COVID-19 emergency fund in the state of Florida. And so there was a $12 million budget allocated to this relocation program,” said Blaskey.

That money was supposed to be used to remove “unauthorized aliens” in Florida, which would not describe the migrants that were relocated to the northeast from Texas, who are legally in the country waiting for an immigration hearing.

“That's been the subject of a lawsuit brought by Senator State Senator Jason Pizzo for the misuse of taxpayer funds,” she added.

Governor Ron DeSantis’ office confirmed to the Miami Herald that the program is still ongoing, although similar flights to other states have been canceled for the time being.

“The Miami Herald has spent several weeks in San Antonio [and] there's no indication from what we understand that this same operation with Perla and whatnot is ongoing. Emmanuel certainly doesn't know of anything continuing, but the program is technically still active,” said Blaskey.

This week, a Leon County circuit judge ruled that the governor's administration did not comply with the state’s public-records law and now has 20 days to provide records related to the migrant flights, which were requested by the Florida Center for Government Accountability.

“I think a lot of people don't expect much between now and the election because, of course, this is a politically charged moment, but sometime by the end of the year, we should know a lot more,” said Blaskey.

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Sherrilyn Cabrera is WLRN's PM newscast and digital producer.
Leslie Ovalle Atkinson is the lead producer behind WLRN's daily magazine program, Sundial. She previously produced Morning Edition newscasts at WLRN and anchored the midday news. As a multimedia producer, she also works on visual and digital storytelling.