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'They’re not listening to us,' advocates respond to bill impacting migrant children

Why FL’s long history of welcoming migrant children is closer to ending
Posted at 8:33 AM, Jan 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-27 08:33:29-05

Before Republicans in a Senate committee voted Monday to move forward a bill aimed at thwarting illegal immigration into the state, members of the public took to the podium in opposition to the bill’s impact on children.

“I am the daughter of Nicaraguan who fled from war,” one woman stated.

“Do not prevent shelters from caring for unaccompanied minors,” stated another.

“All children deserve to be loved and cared for,” another told lawmakers.

In fact, following the discussion of SB 1808, not a single member of the public spoke in favor of the bill that day.

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“What did these kids ever do to you,” asked JJ Holmes, a young disability activist with cerebral palsy. “Just because these children are immigrants doesn’t make them less valuable,” he told lawmakers.

Still, the bill passed favorably moving on to the next phase in becoming law. The bill, among Governor DeSantis’ political priorities that attack what he calls “Biden’s Border Crisis,” would strengthen language surrounding current immigration policies in the state. If passed, it would also prohibit local or state government agencies from doing business with companies that transport undocumented migrants to Florida, the primary point discussed during the committee meeting Monday.

“Over the last 12 months, at least 78 federally chartered airplanes have brought illegal aliens into the Jacksonville International Airport that we know about,” stated Senator Aaron Bean, a Republican representing Jacksonville.

Bean introduced the bill after some flights, chartered by the federal government to relocate people seeking asylum and other migrants, were discovered arriving in the state in the “dead of night,” he said repeatedly during the meeting.

“On one flight, over 50 unaccompanied alien children were locked on a plane from midnight when the crew left until 10 am when a new crew arrived,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

After some questioning by Democratic Senators, Bean acknowledged the bill would also impact companies that transport unaccompanied children who are brought into the state through a fully-funded federal program while they wait to be reunified with family or sponsors here.

“If they are an illegal citizen, no matter how old they are, if the common carrier is engaged in this practice then yes, that common carrier would be prohibited, should this bill pass, from doing business with the state of Florida,” he said.

Democrats, including Tina Polsky who represents parts of Palm Beach County, argued against the bill.

“This bill makes no sense, it is unconstitutional, it’s wrong on a human level,” Polsky said.

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The Senate meeting comes months after we were first to expose how the Governor, back in September, signed an executive order that, in part, ordered Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) not to renew the state licenses of federally funded shelters who temporarily care for unaccompanied children once their transported here but before their reunified with their placement families.

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 non-profit’s state license.

Lutheran Services is among eight of the state’s 15 federally supported shelters for unaccompanied children, who signed off on a recent letter to Governor DeSantis and DCF back in November. The letter asks the Governor and DCF to allow these shelters to continue providing care to these “vulnerable” children.

After repeatedly asking DCF for a copy of the letter and submitting numerous public records requests for the letter, DCF just released us a copy after we had to get our attorneys involved.

DCF has and continues to remain vague about this new directive from the Governor regarding the licensing of shelters that care for unaccompanied children in the state.

Back in December, following exclusive reporting by Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone and her photographer/editor Matthew Apthorp, DCF adopted a series of confusing new licensing rules for these shelters. The new rules limit shelters from caring for additional children and require the federal government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement through the Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS) to enter an agreement with the state to provide more details about the children it's sending to Florida.

However, neither the Governor’s office nor DCF has clarified what those details mean despite questions DHHS asked in a letter it sent to the Governor seeking clarification in hopes of being able to reach an “amicable resolution.”

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In recent weeks, LaGrone and Apthorp have also told the stories of similar letters sent to the Governor from the American Academy of Pediatrics and a recent letter signed off by hundreds of faith-based leaders from around the state, all urging DeSantis not to turn his back on these children, who often risk their lives after being sent here by their parents in hopes of finding freedom and living the American dream.

“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 pushing through Monday.

SB 1808 now moves on to the next phase in the state legislature. A similar bill has also been introduced in the House.

“We have to keep fighting. This is not the first time our communities are under attack but the fact that it’s on children is very telling of this legislature,” said Vinnet.