A black, luxury SUV with tinted windows pulled into a parking space along the side of a drab, two-story La Quinta motel planted on the northwestern edge of 12 lanes of highway that loop around downtown San Antonio.
A woman with straight, light-colored hair got out of the rented Infiniti. She took the outdoor stairs, walked to the far end and knocked on the doors to rooms 243 and 241, where a group of Venezuelan asylum-seekers had spent five anxious days waiting.
She brought them food and a message: They were being sent to Delaware. The bus to the airport would be leaving at 5 a.m. the next day — Tuesday, Sept. 20 — she said, according to interviews with six migrants housed at the hotel.
The migrants didn’t know that they were being swept up in an operation that bore striking similarities to one organized the week before by operatives for Gov. Ron DeSantis that ended with 48 Venezuelan migrants dropped off on a Massachusetts island.
Or that the trip to Delaware being dangled would never happen.
They also didn’t know that an anonymous source close to DeSantis would suggest to NBC News that a planned charter flight from San Antonio to Delaware — that was destined for an airport not far from President Joe Biden’s summer home, according to flight records, and dominated cable news on Tuesday — was canceled without explanation and then used to “punk” journalists and Democrats and keep the “spotlight” on immigration.
If so, the migrants interviewed by the Herald were the butt of the joke. They thought they were going somewhere.
Five days before she knocked on the door of their motel rooms, the woman, who never told them her name, had recruited the migrants to join a secret operation to transport asylum-seekers out of Texas. She had approached them outside San Antonio’s migrant resource center and said she worked for an organization that she did not name.
She offered “clandestine flights” to places that she said could not be disclosed until the last minute. But she promised the destination cities had more resources to help the men, who had just crossed the border after a perilous months-long journey through the Panamanian jungle up through Central America and eventually across the U.S.-Mexico border to Texas towns struggling to accommodate the thousands of people coming in.
“She said there would be work. She said that they would get us there and then there would be help,” said one of the migrants, Pedro Escalona, who had trekked to San Antonio from Venezuela. His asylum hearing was scheduled to take place next month in Washington, D.C., and he hoped to at least get part of the way there.
Mostly, he said, he just wanted to move forward. The flight to Delaware was his best chance.
There would be no flight. The migrants were told the next morning it had been canceled. No explanation was given.
Escalona and around 20 others were stranded — again — with nothing.
The week before, contractors working for DeSantis, including a woman known only as “Perla,” had organized two charter flights to Martha’s Vineyard, the Massachusetts island, as part of a taxpayer-funded program to remove “unauthorized aliens” from Florida.
The flights carried 48 migrants originally from Venezuela, who said they’d been promised jobs and help once they landed at their destination. Instead, they found no one knew they were coming. Surprised island residents stepped forward to help them as a media circus grew.
DeSantis has said he’s recruiting migrants in Texas for the flights because it’s easier to find them traveling together at the border than spread out in his own state. Critics called it a cruel stunt — and a misuse of taxpayer money — aimed at promoting a governor expected to run for president.
The flights don’t come without risks for DeSantis.
On Monday afternoon, Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, a Democrat, announced a criminal investigation into the Martha’s Vineyard charters.
Later that evening, around the same time that Escalona and others were filling out waivers in their hotel rooms declaring that they were traveling to Delaware voluntarily, DeSantis was on Fox News talking to 9 p.m. host Sean Hannity about similar waivers — those filled out by the Martha’s Vineyard group.
On Hannity’s prime-time show, DeSantis said allegations that the migrants had been tricked or coerced onto the flights were “nonsense” and that they were much better off on Martha’s Vineyard. He said they had been given packets with information of groups that could help them once they landed.
DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond Wednesday when asked if the state of Florida was behind the latest recruiting efforts, or whether it had arranged the planned charter flight from San Antonio to Delaware that never happened.
When shown photos of various recruiters, migrants from the Martha’s Vineyard flights and the group that thought they were destined for Delaware both recognized one image, of an unidentified woman with black hair.
Those from Martha’s Vineyard also described a different woman known as “Perla” — which was the name used to book the hotel rooms for Escalona and the others who thought they were going to Delaware, a source familiar with the sheriff’s investigation told the Herald. (In addition, the Martha’s Vineyard group had been housed at an out-of-the-way La Quinta, although in a different part of the city.)
The Delaware-bound plane — owned by the same charter company that the state hired to take the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard — was supposed to fly to an airport near Biden’s vacation home, according to flight data posted online. The flight’s projected arc, with a final destination linked to Biden, followed a similar politically tinged pattern: Former president Barack Obama owns a home on Martha’s Vineyard.
The parallels were not lost on amateur aviation experts who on Monday tweeted out that DeSantis was likely sending a group to Biden’s home state.
Throughout the next day, DeSantis and his office refused to comment, despite intense speculation.
Christina Pushaw, the DeSantis’ campaign’s rapid response director, would write on Twitter that news of the Delaware flight was “disinformation.” (Like the governor’s office, the DeSantis campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
After the flight was canceled, the recruiters organized a bus to take Escalona and most of the others back from La Quinta to the migrant resource center in San Antonio. But some migrants were never told the bus was leaving. They were stranded at the remote hotel roughly 10 miles from the resource center, where migrants can get aid and shelter for a maximum of three days.
Gavin Rogers, a pastor at a San Antonio church that helps migrants, said Florida should not have its operatives sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard — or similar locations — without telling anyone that they are coming.
“When you have this kind of malicious interference, it can be destructive to people’s lives that are seeking asylum,” said Rogers, of the Travis Park Church and Corazón Ministries. “It’s making it harder for nonprofits to do their jobs. These migrants are in desperate situations. We have to treat these individuals with dignity to get them to the places they actually need to go.”
“This is politically motivated human trafficking,” he added. “It’s tragic. The burden falls on the people doing good, not the political actors.”
All of the migrants interviewed by the Herald told similar stories. They were recruited by a woman in a black vehicle driving around the migrant resource center and then taken to La Quinta to wait. Although the destination was uncertain, the plan appealed to people who had no resources after making the long journey north from Venezuela.
“We were out in the street and they offered us the opportunity to sleep in a bed. We thought they were offering to help us,” said Deiker José, a 19-year-old Venezuelan who has an asylum hearing in Miami next month but has no way of getting there. (He asked that his last name not be used for fear of retaliation.)
There were conditions to staying at La Quinta as part of the program. The recruiters warned him not to give out any information or talk about what they were doing. It still would have been worth it, he said, had he gotten to a state that provided more resources to migrants. He just wanted to work, and the woman’s offer seemed to promise that opportunity. (In reality, asylum seekers are not allowed to work immediately.)
Deiker José’s plan vanished the moment the flight was canceled.
“I want to cry because I feel hopeless. I have nothing. How do I work? How do I survive?” he said.
“These very vulnerable individuals are being used as political pawns,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based advocacy group.
The group filed a class-action lawsuit against DeSantis on Tuesday on behalf of three of the migrants who journeyed to Martha’s Vineyard. The suit, filed in Massachusetts federal court, alleges the migrants were tricked into getting on the flights and had their constitutional rights violated. Despite promises of jobs and aid, the migrants found no one was prepared for their arrival on the Vineyard.
Sellstrom said the migrants dropped off back outside the resource center in San Antonio or left at La Quinta by the highway had suffered a similar fate.
“They seem to have been totally abandoned,” he said.
Meanwhile, the mysterious flight never made it to Delaware.
It ultimately ended up flying to Nashville and then landed in New Jersey, flight records show.
Shortly before the flight, Florida’s Department of Transportation paid a contractor $950,000 with state money allocated for a “relocation program of unauthorized aliens,” bringing the total paid to the contractor since just before the Martha’s Vineyard flights to $1.565 million.
The charter flight company, Ohio-based Ultimate JetCharters, did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did the contractor, Vertol Systems Company.
‘I want to cry’
Irwign Gutierrez and his friend Jesus were seated against a wall outside a smoke shop just down the road from the migrant resource center in the early evening on Sept. 19.
Around his wrist was a worn, teal wristband, with “Sunday” printed on it, and “9/17” added with a sharpie: Sunday, September 17 — the day the 28-year-old had gotten to the shelter, and the day his three-day countdown to homelessness began.
As he smoked a cigarette, Gutierrez noticed a black SUV slowing down and then stopping. A woman with light hair and a blue shirt got out and nervously approached. Although he kept his reaction under control, Gutierrez was immediately on guard. Migrants at the center had been warned about recruiters targeting migrants for flights with false promises of jobs at the other end.
He used his phone to record part of her pitch.
“What we do is provide transportation to this state. Tonight, I think we find out where we are going,” the woman can be heard saying in a video. “Once there, we are taken to a place — rather, a community — of support and there they give you more guidance.”
Gutierrez planned to stay in San Antonio, where his asylum hearing would take place next month. But Jesus took the offer.
He got into the SUV and was taken to La Quinta. That night he learned along with the others that he was headed to Delaware the next day. Or so he was told.
Five in the morning came and went at La Quinta and no bus arrived to take the hopeful migrants to Kelly Field, a private airport.
Then, in the middle of the morning, a man came around to the rooms saying the flight had been canceled.
A bus pulled up to La Quinta just before 2 p.m. and the group was told to get on board, although there was some confusion about their ultimate destination. A few thought they might be going to a bus terminal, instead of the airport. Others thought they were returning to the shelter.
The bus driver told them he did not know where they were going until he received a phone call from the organizers of the trip.
“This was all a scam,” said Dairon Banachera in a low voice as he hesitated outside the bus. His friends still had not gotten on the bus and he had the room key, he told the driver.
Banachera was given a choice. Stay or go now. The “lady” from the recruitment organization was calling and pressuring him to get on the road, the driver explained, in an encounter overheard by a reporter
Banachera left the keys at the desk and got on the bus. His friends were left behind.
Everyone was gone when another migrant, Luis Oswaldo, returned to the motel after picking up food. He had known the flight was canceled but no one told him the bus was coming.
“They left me here alone,” Oswaldo told the Herald from outside the motel that evening, which had been paid for through the following day. He was one of at least five migrants left behind.
“They left and that was it,” he said. “They didn’t give out more food. I have water from the lobby.
“I’m ‘eating’ water now,” he said.
Miami Herald Staff Writers Ana Ceballos and Bianca Padró Ocasio and McClatchy DC Staff Writer Ben Wieder contributed to this report.
This story was originally published September 21, 2022 9:29 PM.