TALLAHASSEE — A Venezuelan migrant unable to legally work in the United States was paid to help coordinate Gov. Ron DeSantis’ migrant flight program, putting the Republican governor’s high-profile political gambit in conflict with his long-standing push to crack down on labor from people in the country illegally.
The migrant, a 27-year-old named Emmanuel, told the Miami Herald he helped find passengers to fill planes that DeSantis wanted to send from Texas to Democratic strongholds in northern states. He was recruited by Perla Huerta, a 43-year-old former U.S. Army counterintelligence agent working for Vertol Systems Company — which has been paid more than $1.5 million by the DeSantis administration to execute the operation.
Emmanuel ended up receiving three cash payments totaling $700 from Huerta for his work on behalf of DeSantis’ relocation program, he told the Miami Herald. Text messages reviewed by the Herald corroborate his account.
Such compensation would appear to be a blemish on the governor’s public stance against the hiring of immigrants living in the country illegally, and could present a compliance issue with an immigration law that DeSantis campaigned on in 2018, championed as governor in 2020 and continues to tout as he runs for reelection in November.
That law requires all government contractors, such as Vertol Systems, and all subcontractors to be registered with and use the federal E-Verify system to confirm that all newly hired employees are legally allowed to work in the U.S.
If a contractor enters into a contract with a subcontractor, the subcontractors must provide an affidavit stating that the “subcontractor does not employ, contract with, or subcontract with an unauthorized alien,” state law says.
Florida’s definition of a subcontractor includes a person who provides services to a “contractor or subcontractor in exchange for salary, wages, or other remuneration.”
While it remains unclear how much the DeSantis administration or Vertol Systems knew about Emmanuel’s paid work to help coordinate aspects of the program, records show top aides to DeSantis played key roles in overseeing the operation. That included Larry Keefe, DeSantis’ public safety czar, who was the program’s Texas lead contact.
DeSantis’ office and Vertol Systems did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
‘I’ll hire you’
Like thousands of other recently arrived migrants paroled into the country, Emmanuel does not have a work permit. With no savings, he worked illegally and relied on cash jobs to survive. In San Antonio, he turned to Huerta to see if she could help him out with a paid gig.
“Well, it looks like I might have another flight ... I’ll hire you so you can help me,” Huerta wrote to Emmanuel in Spanish in a WhatsApp message reviewed by the Herald.
Emmanuel received three cash payments from Huerta — the last stashed in a white envelope and left behind a dumpster behind a San Antonio barbecue chain.
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He said he was first paid to give haircuts to a group of migrants — mostly young men — who were living in a San Antonio motel as they waited for flights to Martha’s Vineyard. The rest was for handing out Huerta’s business cards to migrants who might be interested in taking the second round of flights, he said, which records show were planned for Delaware and Illinois before they were canceled following the announcement of a criminal probe into the operation.
Huerta then bought him a plane ticket to Miami after the two agreed he should get out of town, Emmanuel said.
Emmanuel returned to Texas to cooperate with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office’s organized crime unit in its ongoing criminal investigation into the operation. He asked to be identified by his first name only due to the high-profile nature of the case.
‘We need to have E-Verify’
In 2018, when DeSantis was a little-known congressman running for governor, he vowed to require all public and private employers to use the federal E-Verify program.
Once elected, he pressured the Legislature to pass the measure during the 2020 legislative session. In his State of the State speech, he underscored to state lawmakers the importance of passing such a law.
“Assuring a legal workforce through E-Verify will be good for the rule of law, protect taxpayers, and place an upward pressure on the wages of Floridians who work in blue-collar jobs,” he said.
The governor’s priority forced the GOP to break precedent on the issue.
Years of attempts to pass an E-Verify bill had failed in the Republican-led Legislature, which sided with Florida’s powerful business lobby to oppose the measure. Many business groups and immigrant rights organizations advocated against the proposal, saying it would be a major hit to Florida’s top industries that rely heavily on migrants working without legal permission, like tourism and agriculture.
The Legislature approved the E-Verify measure, with an exemption for private employers. It was a watered-down version of what DeSantis had asked for — a partial victory for the governor.
The law required all public employers — including local school districts, public universities and state agencies — and their private contractors to use E-Verify, a system run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, by January 2021. Private employers are not required to use the system unless they enter into government contracts.
Private employers that decide not to use the system are required to keep a three-year record of the documents employees use to complete “I-9″ forms, which the federal government uses to verify workers’ identities and legal eligibility to work in the U.S. Federal law had already required businesses and workers to fill out those forms.
Some Republican supporters of E-Verify expressed disappointment with the end products, calling it “fake E-Verify” and “optional E-Verify” for private employers who do not do work with the government.
In September 2021, DeSantis issued an executive order that sought further audits to ensure employees at private companies are legally allowed to work in the United States.
“We need to have E-Verify,” he told reporters in September 2021. “I want as much as we can get … absolutely.”
Now, DeSantis’ standing in national Republican circles is rising as he seeks reelection in November and is rumored to be mulling a bid for president in 2024. He is aggressively leaning into hardline immigration policies and often criticizes President Joe Biden’s administration for creating a crisis at the border.
In Fox News interviews, DeSantis has repeatedly noted that he has taken action against those policies by instituting the E-Verify law.
But some Republicans continue to express disappointment about what is in place.
“Florida’s fake E-Verify law is an embarrassment to the state,” said Anthony Sabatini, a Republican state lawmaker who sought to make the E-Verify law mandatory for all private and public employers when it was considered by the Legislature in 2020. “We should have passed mandatory E-Verify years ago but our leaders [are] weak and controlled by special interests.”
Miami Herald investigative reporter Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.