Migrant unable to legally work in US helped coordinate DeSantis migrant flights

TALLAHASSEE — A Venezuelan migrant unable to work legally in the United States has been paid to help coordinate Gov. Ron DeSantis’ migrant flight program, bringing the Republican governor’s high-profile political scheme into conflict with his long-running campaign to suppress the work of people in the country illegally.

The migrant, a 27-year-old man named Emmanuel, told the Miami Herald that he helped find passengers to fill planes DeSantis wanted to send from Texas to Democratic strongholds in northern states. He was recruited by Perla Huerta, a 43-year-old former US Army counterintelligence agent working for Vertol Systems Company – who was paid more than $1.5 million by the DeSantis administration to run the operation.

Related: Perla and the Behind-the-Scenes Efforts of DeSantis Migrant Flights

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 stain on the governor’s public stance against hiring immigrants living in the country illegally, and could present a compliance issue with an immigration law DeSantis campaigned on in 2018, defended. as governor in 2020 and continues to boast as he runs for re-election in November.

This law requires all government contractors, such as Vertol Systems, and all contractors to be registered and use the federal E-Verify system to confirm that all newly hired employees are legally authorized to work in the United States.

If a contractor enters into a contract with a subcontractor, subcontractors must provide an affidavit stating that “the subcontractor does not employ, contract with, or subcontract with an unauthorized stranger,” says state law.

Florida’s definition of a subcontractor includes a person who provides services to a “contractor or subcontractor in exchange for salary, wages, or other compensation.”

While it’s unclear exactly what the DeSantis administration or Vertol Systems knew of Emmanuel’s paid work to help coordinate aspects of the program, records show that top DeSantis aides played key roles in the supervision of the operation. This included Larry Keefe, DeSantis’ public safety czar, who was the program’s primary contact in Texas.

Related: Top DeSantis aides were deeply implicated in the migrant robberies

DeSantis’ office and Vertol Systems did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

‘I will hire you’

Like thousands of other migrants who recently arrived on parole in the country, Emmanuel does not have a work permit. With no savings, he worked illegally and relied on gainful employment to survive. In San Antonio, he turned to Huerta to see if she could help him 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 one hidden in a white envelope and left behind in 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 the second round of flights, he said, which records show were scheduled for Delaware and Illinois before they are canceled following the announcement of a criminal investigation into the operation.

Huerta then bought him a plane ticket to Miami after the two agreed he had to leave town, Emmanuel said.

Emmanuel returned to Texas to cooperate with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office Organized Crime Unit in its ongoing criminal investigation into the operation. He asked to be identified only by his first name due to the high profile nature of the case.

“We need E-Verify”

In 2018, when DeSantis was a little-known congressman running for governor, he pledged to require all public and private employers to use the federal E-Verify program.

Once elected, he lobbied the Legislature to pass the measure in the 2020 legislative session. In his State of the State address, he stressed to state lawmakers the importance of adopting such a law.

“Ensuring a legal workforce through E-Verify will be good for the rule of law, protect taxpayers, and put upward pressure on the wages of Floridians working in blue-collar jobs,” he said. he declares.

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 have opposed the proposal, saying it would be a blow to key industries in Florida that rely heavily on migrants working without legal permission, such as tourism and hospitality. agriculture.

The legislator 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.

Related: DeSantis (quietly) signs electronic immigration status verification requirement

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 operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, d ‘by January 2021. Private employers are not required to use the system unless they enter into contracts with the government.

Private employers who 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 the identity of workers and their legal eligibility to work in the United States. Federal law already required businesses and workers to complete these forms.

Some Republican E-Verify supporters have expressed disappointment with the end products, calling them “bogus E-Verify” and “optional E-Verify” for private employers who do not work with the government.

In September 2021, DeSantis issued an executive order calling for new audits to ensure employees of private companies are legally allowed to work in the United States.

“We need E-Verify,” he told reporters in September 2021. “I want everything we can get…absolutely.”

Now DeSantis’ standing in domestic Republican circles is rising as he seeks re-election in November and is rumored to be considering a 2024 presidential bid. He is aggressively leaning on hard-line immigration policies and often criticizes President Joe Biden’s administration for creating a border crisis.

In Fox News interviews, DeSantis repeatedly noted that he took action against these policies by instituting the E-Verify Act.

But some Republicans continue to express disappointment with what is in place.

“Florida’s bogus E-Verify law is an embarrassment to the state,” said Anthony Sabatini, a Republican state legislator who has sought to make the E-Verify law mandatory for all private and public employers when it was considered by the Legislative Assembly in 2020.” We should have adopted 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.

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