If Florida will close its doors to unaccompanied migrant children remains a question the federal government, which sends these children here, is asking the state to set straight.
In a letter obtained by Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is asking the DeSantis administration to clarify a series of confusing new rules for shelters that temporarily care for unaccompanied migrant children as part of a decades-old program.
In the letter, dated December 23, 2021, the feds threaten Florida with legal action. “Absent significant clarification, the approach reflected in the emergency rule raises serious legal concerns and if we cannot resolve this matter amicably, HHS will pursue all available options, including referring the matter to the Department of Justice,” stated Mark Greenberg, Deputy General Counsel for the Department of Health and Human Services.
“I’m happy to see that there is a reaction from the federal government,” said Tessa Petit, co-executive director of Florida’s Immigrant Coalition, a social justice organization that advocates for immigrant rights.
“It helps to see that it’s not just us not understanding what’s going on and pushing back.”
Petit is responding to a controversial move, Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone and photographer Matthew Apthorp first exposed back in November. That’s when the Florida Investigative team discovered in response to a Governor’s order cracking down on illegal immigration in Florida and what Governor DeSantis dubbed “Biden’s border crisis,” Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) had inexplicably stopped renewing the state licenses of shelters and foster parents in Florida who are federally funded to care for unaccompanied children when they arrive in the U.S. but before they’re placed with family or sponsors here. The federal program is run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Then, LaGrone learned one federally funded shelter in Sarasota known as Dream Center was suddenly forced to relocate the nearly 60 kids in its care, half of them 13 and under at the time, because DCF wouldn’t renew its license and never explained why.
Sam Sipes is CEO of Lutheran Services in Tampa which operates the Dream Center. Sipes told LaGrone how difficult the relocation was for the nearly 100 staff members who work at the center and the children, many of whom, had risked their lives seeking freedom in the United States.
“This place was for many of those children, most of those children the first place they ever felt safe. So yea, sad,” he told us back in November.
As a result of the state’s stonewalling, Lutheran Services of Florida sued the state. DCF renewed the Dream Center’s license last month, a day before DCF was to explain to a Judge why it wasn’t responding to the center about its licensure renewal.
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The Dream Center was re-licensed around the same time, DCF issues a series of confusing new administrative rules governing shelters that house unaccompanied minors as part of the federal government’s program
The rules, which don’t take effect until February, include limiting shelters from accepting more unaccompanied children and it requires the feds to enter into a cooperative agreement with the state detailing who it's sending to Florida and giving the state advanced notice before any child is sent here from the southern border.
But what this agreement or advanced notice means remains unclear to us, these shelters, and, apparently, the federal government.
“While we are open to providing needed information to understand policies and procedures…HHS could not agree to allow Florida to require individualized review in each case before children are placed in a facility,” the federal letter states.
Immigration advocates agree.
“What happens to their protection as minor children,” asked Petito. “What happens to their protection as far as any form of harassment and also how do we not limit access to minors’ information once they’re in the system,” Petito asked.
Critics have called DeSantis’ crackdown on kids, a political play and a move to appeal to his base as rumors swirl about a possible run for the White House in 2024.
In November, when LaGrone first broke the story, Florida Representative Anna Eskamani, a Democrat representing Orlando, said she felt he was using children as “political pawns.” Eskamani also said DeSantis was putting these mission-based community organizations that provide these shelters in the middle of a political debate.
“They should not be punished because the DeSantis administration has a grudge on the Biden administration,” Eskamani said.
But the Governor staunchly defends the move and continued to defend his decision when we confronted him about it in December during a roundtable discussion in Tampa.
“Why are you bringing children into this immigration debate,” Reporter Katie LaGrone asked.
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“I want our resources focused on the needs of Florida kids and needs we have in our communities,” DeSantis said. When LaGrone pressed him, adding the shelters are federally funded, DeSantis responded “I’ve answered your question, thanks.”
In response to the federal letter which the feds asked Florida to respond to by December 30th, Christina Pushaw, a Governor spokesperson, told us in an email “it is under review so we do not have a response to provide at this time.” Pushaw added in bolded letters, “it is ironic that, instead of enforcing federal immigration law, the Biden Administration would threaten legal action against our state for policies that seek to protect Floridians from the Biden border crisis and human smuggling operation.”
During a state of the state address earlier this week, Governor DeSantis reiterated his commitment to thwarting illegal immigration into Florida.
“When the federal government dumps people here to Florida, Florida should not be made to bare the burden of our federal government’s lawless open-door policy,” he said adding that the federal government had also been found shipping immigrants, including unaccompanied minors, into Florida on “clandestine flights in the dead of night.”
“That does not justify putting thousands of children’s lives at risk and misrepresenting what America is about,” said Petito. “If we want to fight as adults, let’s fight as adults but don’t include children in this fight.”