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Investigating how Florida flew migrants to Martha's Vineyard

Probe into Martha's Vineyard migrant flights
Probe into migrant flights from Texas to Martha's Vineyard | 60 Minutes 13:18

Daniel Cauro and his sister, both migrants from Venezuela, were excited when they got onto a plane in Texas after their monthslong journey to the U.S. The siblings had already been lawfully permitted to remain in the U.S pending the outcome of their claims for asylum. Neither one had ever been on a plane and said they were told they were going somewhere where they'd have access to help and housing. 

Neither one knew they were going to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. They were among 50 migrants flown from Texas to Martha's Vineyard on flights arranged by the office of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

How did Florida become involved in the Texas migrant situation?

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and then Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey last year bused thousands of migrants to Washington D.C., New York and Chicago. 

Florida became involved after its state legislature last year allocated $12 million for the transport of "illegal immigrants," Taryn Fenske, DeSantis' communications director at the time, said.

"States like Massachusetts, New York, and California will better facilitate the care of these individuals who they have invited into our country by incentivizing illegal immigration through their designation as 'sanctuary states' and support for the Biden Administration's open border policies," Fenske said in September of last year. 

During a news conference after the transport, DeSantis described the migrants as hungry, homeless and lacking in opportunities.

Florida "offered transport to sanctuary jurisdictions," DeSantis said at the September 2022 news conference.

How were migrants found for transport from Texas?

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar has been looking into the flights since migrants were transported from his Texas county to Massachusetts. He said the process began outside a migrant resource center in San Antonio. 

Sheriff Javier Salazar
Sheriff Javier Salazar 60 Minutes

"From what we're able to tell at this point, basically it looks like they drove around the area, looking for people that may look like the target audience that they're after," Salazar said. "And then made the approach."

The targets, in this case, were migrants like Cauro, 30, his sister Deici and their two cousins. They had surrendered at the U.S. border in early September 2022, requested asylum and were lawfully allowed into the U.S. 

They were outside the resource center days later, hungry and tired, when two women in a white SUV offered help, Daniel Cauro said. One spoke Spanish. 

"She was saying, 'we want to send you to a state where there's not so many migrants, and you're going to have a lot of help, because you're going to have housing and all that,'" Daniel Cauro said in Spanish.

He said the woman never mentioned Massachusetts as a possibility. She identified herself as Perla. 

Perla is Perla Huerta. She's a former U.S. Army counterintelligence agent, according to the Pentagon. Dozens of texts obtained by the Florida Center for Government Accountability reveal that Huerta was in Texas looking for migrants to fill the planes. Her progress was reported back to key members of the Florida governor's office. In mid-August of 2022, Huerta texted then Florida Public Safety Czar Larry Keefe as she searched for migrants in Texas: "just got back.  churches were empty." 

Keefe sent a progress note to DeSantis's then Chief of Staff James Uthmeier on Sept. 5. 

"I'm back out here," Keefe said. "Conditions are quite favorable." 

Uthmeier replied: "Very good. You have my full support. Call anytime."

Six days later, Keefe told Uthmeier that two planes could be filled to capacity. 

"Yahtzee!! We're full," Huerta wrote in a message. 

The migrants were housed and fed at a $59-a-night hotel near a Texas airport for days. Daniel Cauro said that on the afternoon before they left, Huerta gave them a $10 McDonald's gift card. He still carries his. 

Daniel Cauro and Deici
Daniel Cauro and Deici 60 Minutes

"She said 'here's a card, but I need you to sign this sheet.' And we said 'OK,'" Cauro said in Spanish. "We were hungry, so we signed it."

They signed a consent to transport form. The migrants said the abbreviations for Texas and Massachusetts were filled in by someone else. Martha's Vineyard was not mentioned on the form at all.

From Texas to Massachusetts

The day after they signed the forms, the 50 migrants boarded private jets. Flight data shows they took off at 8 a.m. on Sept. 14, stopping in Crestview, Florida, and again in the Carolinas to refuel. They landed on Martha's Vineyard around 3 p.m. 

Migrants were escorted onto waiting buses and then dropped off by the side of the road. No one on Martha's Vineyard knew the migrants were coming. 

Jackie Stallings and her husband, Larkin, were among the first to be called in to help. They own a dive bar and Jackie speaks Spanish. The migrants seemed shell-shocked, Jackie Stallings said. Help soon poured in from every corner of the island. 

Where are the migrants now?

Once in Martha's Vineyard, the migrants were worried about missing their mandatory immigration check ins, Rachel Self, a criminal defense and immigration lawyer, said. The check-ins were scheduled all over the country. 

"If you miss that check-in, there's a potential that you could be placed into proceedings and deported in absentia," Self said. 

One of the 50 migrants left Martha's Vineyard for the mainland while Self arranged later check-in dates for the other 49. 

The migrants told her they'd been promised help, Self said. She said most of the migrants had paperwork they said was handed to them 15 minutes before the plane landed in Massachusetts. The pamphlet, according to DeSantis' office, included a map of Martha's Vineyard. It advertised a long list of available benefits. 

Rachel Self
Rachel Self, a criminal defense and immigration lawyer, worked with the migrants on Martha's Vineyard. 60 Minutes

"None of these benefits apply to them and whoever perpetrated this scheme didn't realize that," Self said. 

If immigration officials determine the migrants were victimized, they could receive justice in the form of something called a U-Visa, Self said. She flew to Texas with a stack of U-Visa certifications for Sheriff Salazar to sign, and after careful review, he did. 

In the months since, only Daniel Cauro, his sister and their cousins have remained on Martha's Vineyard. They work odd jobs to pay the bills. The other migrants settled on the mainland. They've all begun the years-long wait for their asylum cases and U-Visas to be processed. 

The criminal investigation into the migrant flights

The migrants' stories caught Salazar's attention. He could not comprehend why officials from Florida were involved in moving migrants in Texas. He asked his Organized Crimes unit to investigate. After eight months, they uncovered what Salazar has called a "covert criminal operation" carried out by individuals who were contracted by DeSantis's office. 

"When you move people from point A to point B under conditions of deception, then that qualifies as unlawful restraint," Salazar said. 

No one in the Florida governor's office has been charged with any crimes related to the flights. They declined to speak to 60 Minutes about the operation.

Sheriff Salazar did recommend felony and misdemeanor criminal charges against two suspects in June. He would not name them, but described them as female recruiters involved in the operation. Sheriff Salazar's recommendation is under review by the Bexar County District Attorney's Office.

"They preyed upon people to get them onto that plane," Salazar said. "They exploited them, took advantage of the situation that they were in, a very desperate situation, and then took them  there under false pretenses."

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