Governor Ron DeSantis has officially informed the federal government that Florida will no longer participate in a federal program to house migrant children who enter the U.S. without their parents but are waiting to be united with relatives or sponsors here, until “significant changes” are made to federal immigration policies.
“This is one of my worst fears,” said Florida Representative Anna Eskamani, a Democrat representing Orlando. “I fight for immigrant rights all the time, never would I have thought there would be a fight over children,” she said in response to the letter sent by the DeSantis Administration to the Department of Health & Human Services on January 26.
“This is not just anti-immigrant, this is anti-kid,” Eskamani said in response to the contents of the letter.
The letter, obtained by Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone on Wednesday through a public records request to the state, is a direct response to a federal letter sent to Governor DeSantis and the Secretary of Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) back in December.
At the time, the feds were seeking clarification over a series of confusing new licensing rules DCF had adopted for federally funded shelters that temporarily house unaccompanied children who arrive here through the federal government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
But in Florida’s response, General Counsel for Governor DeSantis Ryan Newman laid out how the Biden administration’s “weak” immigration enforcement policies have made it difficult to properly vet illegal immigrants who arrive in the country through the federal ORR program.
In the letter, Newman accused the feds of participating in a “human trafficking scheme” by taking custody of unaccompanied minors and delivering them across the country, adding how many of these unaccompanied children “are poorly vetted, involved in the trafficking conspiracy or are themselves in the country unlawfully,” he wrote.
Newman also said Biden’s administration “exacerbated” the problem of unaccompanied children with open border policies and lax immigration enforcement. He cited the murder of a Florida man last year in Jacksonville by an adult who entered the country illegally claiming to be an unaccompanied minor in the program.
Newman added that the number of unaccompanied minors “exploded” under President Biden from 33,000 in the fiscal year 2020 to 146,000 during Biden’s first year in office and how the responsibility to care for unaccompanied minors isn’t equal among states, with Florida and Texas taking in most children.
“For these reasons, DCF can no longer participate in or otherwise facilitate this highly flawed program until significant changes are made in federal immigration enforcement,” the letter said.
Florida is among 22 states that currently have shelters contracted by the federal government to house unaccompanied minors. There are currently 16 licensed shelters in Florida that are federally funded to care for these children through the ORR program.
Since these shelters care for kids, the state requires they have a state license through DCF. DCF also provides oversight of these shelters which advocates say adds another necessary layer of protection to ensure unaccompanied kids are properly cared for while in these shelters.
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DeSantis’ response to the feds comes months after we were first to expose how the governor, back in September, signed an executive order that, in part, directed DCF not to renew the state licenses of these shelters that temporarily care for unaccompanied children.
The Dream Center in Sarasota had to relocate nearly 60 kids in its care back in the fall because DCF inexplicably wouldn’t renew its license. After the center’s parent company, Lutheran Services of Florida, sued DCF, the state agency renewed the nonprofit’s state license.
Since then, shelter providers, immigration advocates, faith-based leaders and even the medical community have all sent letters to Governor DeSantis and DCF asking them to allow these federally funded shelters to continue providing care to “vulnerable” children in Florida. They asked them not to bring children in the middle of what appeared to be a growing political feud between the DeSantis and Biden Administrations. Critics say DeSantis’ tough stance on immigration is part of an effort to appeal to his Republican base as he is widely rumored to make a play for the White House in 2024.
“It’s not a political issue for us, it’s an issue of humanity, it’s an issue of compassion,” said Pastor Joel Tooley who works with a coalition of Christians encouraging bipartisan solutions to immigration reform.
Tooley led the charge behind an advocacy letter signed by hundreds of faith-based leaders from around the state and sent to DeSantis a few weeks ago urging him to back down on efforts that would prevent these shelters from continuing to care for migrant children.
“We have a responsibility to care for these kids, no matter how they come or what their background is,” he said.
Once an unaccompanied child enters the U.S., the government is required, by federal law, to care for them until they are reunited with family or a vetted sponsor.
“I cannot believe that they don’t have any feeling for humans, that’s what this country is all about,” said 74-year-old Alicia Pelaz.
Pelaz came to the U.S. from Cuba without her parents as an unaccompanied minor through Operation Pedro Pan, a mass exodus of children from Cuba in the 1960s. Pelaz was 13-years- old when her parents shipped her and her younger sister to America with a group of nuns from their school.
“At the time what we were running away from what was maybe working in a camp. I can’t imagine these kids who are coming in now. Heaven knows what they have experienced in their countries and what they have lived through,” she said.
Pelaz is a registered Republican in Florida but believes the governor’s efforts to thwart illegal immigration by adopting policies aimed at keeping unaccompanied children out of the state is wrong.
“This governor has kids, he should put himself in the life of these people for one second if he has any compassion. It’s really awful."
The governor’s harsh stance on these federal shelters is part of a larger crackdown on illegal immigration in the state and what he called “Biden’s Border Crisis.” DeSantis maintains the move is part of his larger effort to focus on Florida’s needs.
“I want our resources focused on the needs of Florida kids and the needs we have in our communities,” he told Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone back in December. However, DeSantis did not respond when LaGrone added that the shelters providing care to unaccompanied minors are fully funded by the federal government.
In recent months, LaGrone also told the stories of how foster parents who are federally funded to care for unaccompanied children through the ORR program are also not getting their state licenses renewed by DCF as part of the governor’s executive order.
During a meeting last week, Republican Senators approved a bill that would penalize airlines and other transportation companies that transport illegal immigrants, including children, for the federal government.
A House committee approved a companion bill Thursday morning. If the bill becomes law, transport companies would be banned from getting local and state contracts if they continue transporting immigrants into Florida for the federal government.
“They’re not listening to us,” said Isabel Vinnet, Co-Executive Director of Florida’s Immigrant Coalition. “It’s just incredible to see our politicians focusing on an attack on children,” she said in response to the bills which members of the public spoke in overwhelming opposition of.
The Department of Health & Human Services, which operates the Office of Refugee Resettlement program, has not responded to our request for comment about the governor’s letter or how it impacts children currently being cared for in these federal shelters in Florida.
Shelter providers have not offered any comment and remain confused and concerned over how this will all play out. These shelters also employ many people who work around the clock to care for these kids while they are in shelters.
The governor’s office has also not responded to questions about what this means for shelters and the children in them right now or when the state will officially stop these shelters from accepting migrant children.
However, in the letter, the DeSantis Administration told the feds that shelters with existing licenses “shall not take placement of any additional UAC [unaccompanied minors] until a cooperative agreement is entered.” That agreement would include advance notice when UAC’s are being transported into the state, verification of age and a criminal background check.
“It is critical that lines of responsibility and accountability are clearly drawn. So long as the Biden administration continues its irresponsible immigration policies, Florida no longer wishes to be involved in the Federal Government’s UAC resettlement program,” the letter states.
Emails to Republican U.S. Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio went unanswered Thursday.
A spokesperson from Democratic U.S. Representative Lois Frankel’s office told us in an email, “it is in the best interest of all people that children be treated with care regardless of where they are born. Forcing shelter and licensed caregivers to turn children away or jeopardize the children already under their supervision is inhumane and un-American."
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