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Mysterious ‘Perla,’ now identified, may be in legal jeopardy in migrant case

“The question at hand is who will be the first to haul her before a grand jury?”

Erich Schlegel for the Boston Globe
Immigrants from Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Colombia wait on the sidewalk outside the Migrant Resource Center in San Antonio. Erich Schlegel for The Boston Globe

As officials worked to unravel the story behind the transport of nearly 50 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard last month, one name kept popping up: “Perla.” 

Several of the migrants said that the woman — previously known only by her first name — solicited them for charter flights out of Texas with promises of housing and jobs. On Monday, The New York Times identified her as Perla Huerta, a former combat medic and counterintelligence agent who was recently discharged after two decades in the U.S. Army. 

Perla’s unmasking answers one question and raises several more about the transport, which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis organized.

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Here’s what we know so far:

Who is Perla?

Investigators believe Huerta was sent to Texas from Tampa, Florida, to fill the planes, according to the Times. 

A source close to the San Antonio sheriff’s office investigation provided Huerta’s name to the Times, and the newspaper also confirmed her identity with a Venezuelan migrant who was working with Huerta, as well as a migrant in San Antonio whom Huerta had unsuccessfully sought to recruit. 

A photo of Perla Huerta taken by one of the migrants in San Antonio (Courtesy photo, via The Boston Globe)

According to The Boston Globe, a spokesperson for the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office said Monday the investigation is ongoing and the office has “not identified any persons of interest at this time.”

The San Antonio Express-News identified Huerta as a native of the city and said she was deployed twice in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 and four times in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2019. She lives in Tampa with her young daughter, according to the Express-News.

Public records show she listed her Tampa house for sale in August, according to the Globe. A neighbor, Dan Palmer, told the Globe he asked Huerta around that time what she planned to do next and received a somewhat vague answer.

“Well, I might go to Europe,” he recalled her saying.

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Palmer told the newspaper he hasn’t seen Huerta in weeks.

What is she accused of doing?

Migrants in Mass.

Huerta and other recruiters are accused of making deceptive promises to the migrants about the employment, housing, educational opportunities, and other resources they would receive upon arrival, according to a class action lawsuit filed by Lawyers for Civil Rights, which is representing several of the migrants. 

In its complaint, LCR alleges that Huerta — identified in the lawsuit as Defendant Doe #1 — had several migrants sign a document regarding the transport to Massachusetts in exchange for $10 McDonald’s gift cards.

Javier Salazar, sheriff of Texas’s Bexar County, similarly claimed the migrants were transported under false pretenses. 

“They were promised work, they were promised the solution to several of their problems. They were taken to Martha’s Vineyard, from what we can gather, for little more than a photo op, video op,” he said. “Then they were unceremoniously stranded in Martha’s Vineyard.”

What legal issues is she facing?

Lawyers for Civil Rights is suing DeSantis, Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue, the State of Florida, and other “accomplices” — including “Perla,” the woman named in the suit as Doe Defendant #1. 

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On Monday, the organization said it plans to amend its complaint to include Huerta’s name once it verifies the identification. Huerta will then be formally served and required to respond in federal district court, LCR Executive Director Iván Espinoza-Madrigal said in a news release.

Huerta may also play a role in helping authorities delve into the remaining legal questions surrounding the migrants’ transport. 

“The question at hand is who will be the first to haul her before a grand jury?” The Boston Globe’s editorial board wrote Tuesday. 

The editorial asserted that there’s a case to be made in Florida for the possible misuse of state funds; Florida’s Legislature approved $12 million for a program “within the Florida Department of Transportation to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens out of Florida,” but the flights to Martha’s Vineyard originated in Texas. 

A column in The Washington Post similarly noted that the identification of “Perla” opens the door to new inquiries.

“We’re still missing a direct link between Huerta and the DeSantis administration’s role in the plot. … Huerta could help fill in any such links,” columnist Greg Sargent wrote.  

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