Governor DeSantis’ promise to stop the influx of undocumented immigrants into the Sunshine State appears to be intensifying, this time with children feeling its impact.
About a week ago, the Dream Center in Sarasota was forced to remove all of the nearly 60 unaccompanied children in its care.
“Half of them were 13 or under,” said Same Sipes, CEO of Lutheran Services in Tampa, which operates the Dream Center.
The federally-funded facility is one of more than a dozen that temporarily provide shelter for unaccompanied children who come into the state under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The program assists undocumented people seeking asylum in the U.S. In the case of minors, children typically spend a few weeks in the care of an ORR shelter before they’re reunited with a sponsor, who is often a relative.
But while the Dream Center is fully funded by the federal government, it must have a state license since it houses children. However, weeks after submitting all the necessary paperwork for its annual license renewal, Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) has yet to renew the Dream Center’s license or even tell anyone at Lutheran Services whether it plans to renew their license.
“We received no response. We didn’t receive a denial, we didn’t receive an acceptance and we weren’t able to get answers from anyone in state government regarding the disposition of our license renewal,” said Sipes.
"I'm just confused. I've never dealt with anything like this before," he said about DCF's history of renewing licenses for this center or any of its other centers that service children. The Dream Center has been working as a federally funded shelter for unaccompanied minors since 2020, according to Sipes.
As Lutheran Services continued to wait for DCF to respond to their repeated calls and emails, its state license technically expired. As a result, the organization had no other choice but to move all the kids in its care to other licensed shelters in Florida or out of the state altogether.
“These are real people’s lives at stake. It’s very sad and these 50+ children were traumatized again because they had to move in a hurry because we couldn’t get clarity about our license status,” explained Sipes.
The lack of answers from the state agency has forced Lutheran Services to take DCF to court about what Sipes described as something he’d never dealt with before. In the complaint filed in Hillsborough County Court, Lutheran Services accuses DCF of failing to issue a license renewal by the date the initial licensure would have been renewed.
“Because DCF has not acted in accordance with its standard and customary practice to renew the Dream Center’s current license, LSF (Lutheran Services) has no recourse but to bring this proceeding…” according to court records. The nonprofit is now asking a judge to determine if it can continue to serve unaccompanied children at the Dream Center while it waits for approval or denial from DCF. It’s also asking the courts to require DCF to make a decision on its licensure within the next 30 days.
After repeated attempts to contact DCF about the situation, a spokesperson would only tell us they are working on our requests. The Office of Refugee Resettlement did not respond to our requests with answers either.
But why the Dream Center doesn’t appear to be getting the state’s blessing for licensure renewal may go back to an executive order signed by the Governor back in September to stop the influx of undocumented immigrants coming into the state. In that order, Governor DeSantis railed against what he called Biden’s border crisis. The order directs state agencies to stop supporting federal programs that transport to the state, “aliens apprehended at the Southwest border” who do not have lawful status here.
The order includes a directive to DCF to determine “whether the resettlement of unaccompanied children in Florida from outside of the state constitutes an evidence of need” under Florida law. If it does not, “the department shall not grant or renew any license” for shelters that care for unaccompanied children.
In a lengthy statement to us, the Governor’s spokesperson Christina Pushaw cited the Biden Administration stating, “they should not be resettling illegal aliens of any age in Florida without our knowledge or consent, yet they persist in doing so."
“Governor DeSantis wants to protect Floridians, deter illegal migration and prevent human smuggling,” Pushaw said in defense of the Governor’s executive order.
Since August, Governor DeSantis has pressed the federal government for details on who, when and where undocumented immigrants are being sent to in Florida through the Office of Refugee Resettlement program. But to date, that information, even basic information on refugees, has not been provided according to DeSantis’ spokesperson.
When asked what “evidence of need” means as it relates to DCF’s determination over facility licensure, Pushaw responded, “it’s still being established by DCF.”
“Children should not be political pawns,” said Representative Anna Eskamani, a Democrat who represents Orlando.
Eskamani only learned about what’s happening at the Dream Center when we told her about it. She fears what’s happening with the Dream Center could become the new norm for other federally supported shelters in Florida that provide similar services to unaccompanied minors.
In Texas over the summer, Governor Greg Abbot took a similar measure when he issued a disaster declaration that directed his state agency to deny or discontinue licenses for shelters that care for migrant children. However, before the declaration took effect, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission issued an emergency rule that allows the shelters to continue to operate without a state license. In Florida, no such rule currently exists.
While thousands of unaccompanied minors are served through the federal program each year in Florida, at any given time, there are roughly 700 beds reserved for this purpose. In Orlando, Bethany Christian Services also has a shelter that cares for unaccompanied kids through the federal program. Its license comes up for renewal in the next few months.
“The fact that all of a sudden these nonprofits doing contractual work is questioned, it’s clearly the governor playing politics and it’s not good policy. It’s not safe for these children or these organizations who now have to scramble to find a safe place for these kids to go,” Representative Eskamani said.
For Lutheran Services, serving unaccompanied children is part of its long history and mission to help those in need.
“What I want to make very clear is that this is not political for us. We don’t get involved in border politics, we don’t make decisions on who’s allowed to stay or go. Our mission is to provide healing and hope to children and families in need, that’s what we do,” said Sipes.
At the Dream Center, Sipes said its 100 employees are still being told to show up to work as they all wait for answers on what’s next and if a nationwide political debate will leave them and the children they’re called to help caught in the middle.
“We’re approaching Christmas season and we really don’t want to tell 11-year-old victims of trafficking that there’s no room for you at the inn,” Sipes said.
To learn how you can help Lutheran Services’ mission to help those in need including refugees, click here.