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Lawsuits involving Florida Gov. DeSantis' migrant relocation flights move forward

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We are learning more about the flights that relocated almost 50 Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha's Vineyard. Migrants who were on those flights last month have filed a lawsuit alleging they were misled, and that is not the only legal question surrounding the incident. NPR's Joel Rose is following all this. Hey, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Start with new information about one of the key players in this story - who is it? What do we need to know?

ROSE: Yeah, this is about a woman known as Perla. Several migrants told NPR that she approached them outside a shelter in San Antonio and lured them into boarding these planes with promises of expedited work permits and jobs. Migrants say she identified herself only as Perla and didn't give out her last name. Now, The New York Times and CNN are reporting that her name is Perla Huerta - that she spent two decades in the U.S. Army, serving as a combat medic and counterintelligence agent, and now lives in Florida. NPR has not independently confirmed this. However, we have tried repeatedly to reach Perla Huerta, both on the phone and at her home in Tampa, but have not been successful.

KELLY: Intriguing. OK. Meanwhile, have we learned more about how these flights were actually organized?

ROSE: We know they were paid for by the state of Florida out of a $12 million fund created by the legislature earlier this year. And we know that the state has paid more than $1.5 million to an aviation company called Vertol Systems. It's not clear why the state chose Vertol, but the company's owner has donated money to Republican candidates in the past. And as far as how Perla fits in - who hired her and why - those are still unanswered questions.

KELLY: OK. We also know these flights are the subject of a criminal investigation. There are at least two lawsuits out there. What can you tell us about those?

ROSE: Yeah, the criminal investigation is by the sheriff in San Antonio. That is still ongoing. As for the civil lawsuits, one was filed by a nonprofit advocacy group called Lawyers for Civil Rights, which represents several dozen of the migrants. And that complaint is probably the best window we have into how the flights worked. According to the lawsuit, Perla essentially tried to win migrants' trust with $10 McDonald's gift cards and free hotel rooms. The migrants thought they were going to Boston or Washington, D.C., and only found out they'd been misled when they landed instead on Martha's Vineyard. The lawsuit also alleges that the migrants were given fake brochures promising them cash benefits and other assistance in Massachusetts - benefits that are only available to people who are formally designated as refugees, which these migrants were not.

KELLY: Right.

ROSE: But Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has defended the flights, saying the migrants signed waivers and flew voluntarily. His spokeswoman said the migrants were, quote, "homeless, hungry and abandoned," unquote, in Texas. And he accuses immigrant advocates of using the migrants for political theater.

KELLY: OK. And I think you told us about one lawsuit. I mentioned there's another one. This one's filed by a Florida state senator?

ROSE: That's right - state senator from South Florida, a Democrat named Jason Pizzo, who argues that the migrant flights are a misuse of state funds. The legislature approved $12 million to, quote, "facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens from this state, consistent with federal law," unquote. However, these migrants were transported from Texas to Massachusetts, and Pizzo argues that's not what the legislature authorized when it approved this money. Again, DeSantis has defended the flights and promised to spend every penny the legislature gave him. And DeSantis argues he's already succeeded in drawing attention to the southern border, which was his goal, because it's seen a record number of migrant apprehensions last year.

KELLY: NPR's Joel Rose, thanks for your reporting on this.

ROSE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.

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