TAMPA, Fla. — During an audio-only public hearing via zoom, staff from Florida's Department of Children and Families (DCF) heard opposition over and over again from the public.
The public comment was in reference to a proposed new rule that, if approved, orders DCF to permanently stop issuing state licenses to federally funded shelters that house unaccompanied migrant children for the federal government until the feds agree to share more details about who it's sending here.
DCF maintains the rule is meant to prioritize Florida children and stop what Go. Ron DeSantis' administration has called Biden's border crisis.
DeSantis and DCF have also criticized the federal government's program for unaccompanied minors as taking part in "human trafficking" when it sends children to shelters around the country, including Florida.
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But some members of the public on Thursday pierced the state's top child welfare agency for answers and explanations.
"I have yet to hear officials articulate a rational and legally constitutional reason why, they claim, unaccompanied children, who are here and supported through federal funds, are in some way taking away from U.S. citizen children in Florida," asked Luz Lopez of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
DCF responded that the measure was the agency's way of prioritizing Florida children.
During the two-hour-long hearing, more than a dozen shelter providers, immigrant advocates and faith-based leaders questioned the state's legal footing for the unprecedented rule.
Not a single member of the public spoke in favor of the proposed rule. Some called it too vague, others called it irrational and several members of the public criticized the law for being ill-defined.
At one point, Paul Chavez of the Southern Poverty Law Center asked if DCF could clarify how the agency defines "Florida children."
A DCF staff member replied, "a lawful citizen."
But when Chavez questioned if that also meant asylum seekers or people born in Florida or only U.S. citizens, the DCF staffer stated "perhaps we need to clarify that in writing after the meeting."
The public hearing follows months of rising tensions over the governor’s latest efforts to crack down on illegal immigration into the state.
Back in the fall, Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone and her photographer, Matthew Apthorp, were the first journalists to discover how an executive order signed by DeSantis ordered DCF not to renew the licenses of federally-funded shelters housing unaccompanied children in the state.
The measure forced the Dream Center in Sarasota to relocate nearly 60 unaccompanied children in its care because DCF refused to respond to the center's license renewal application.
The Dream Center's parent company, Lutheran Services, filed a lawsuit against the state to make DCF respond to its license renewal application.
One day before DCF was to explain to a judge why it was stonewalling the nonprofit, DCF suddenly renewed its license.
Since then, DCF adopted a temporary rule denying these shelters a license until the federal government agrees to a cooperative agreement with the state detailing more information about the children it's sending here through a long-standing program with its Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
To date, no such agreement has been made.
A spokesperson with the Department of Health & Human Services has not answered why it won't enter into agreements with Florida to share more details about the children it sends here.
A spokesperson has only explained the federal government is legally obligated to care for unaccompanied children and the agency continues to explore its legal options.
"I would hate to work for DCF in the role of trying to defend this proposal," said pastor Joel Tooley of Melbourne, who also commented during Thursday's public hearing.
Tooley, who works as an immigrant advocate with Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT), helped lead the charge behind a letter sent in January to DCF and DeSantis.
The letter, signed by 200 faith-based leaders from around the state, urged the governor and DCF not to bring children and shelters, many of them faith-based, into what appeared to be a steadily intensifying immigration debate between the DeSantis administration and Biden administration.
Tooley believes targeting nonprofit shelters that are contracted by the federal government to support unaccompanied minors is also infringing on their religious freedoms since many of these shelters are faith-based and caring for children, regardless of where they come from, is part of their religious missions.
"It does feel like there is a target on our back, forcing us to choose. Are we willing to give up caring for vulnerable children who are in the care of our communities because of political posturing? There is no decision there, there's no middle there," Tooley said. "Our hope is the department decides it doesn't have the bandwidth to continue with this."
DCF is accepting written public comment on its proposed new rule for these shelters until the close of business on March 2.
Earlier this week, general counsel for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, sent a response to DeSantis' administration.
It stated that despite DCF's rule not to relicense shelters and foster families caring for unaccompanied children as part of the federal government's program, the state could not take action, beyond suspension or revocation, against these shelters if they continued serving these children without a state license.
According to the letter, the feds are asking for a response by March 4.
Below is the Feb. 22 letter sent from the Department of Health and Human Services to DCF regarding the matter: