TALLAHASSEE — With thousands of immigrant children seeking shelter in a growing humanitarian crisis, Florida's surgeon general on Friday raised the specter that they could pose a threat to public health.
More than 57,000 children have arrived at the U.S.-Mexican border without their parents since fall, mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. As Congress argues about what to do, federal health officials must find safe shelter for them. Some of the children already are in Florida.
In a letter to the heads of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Dr. John Armstrong wrote that "unconfirmed reports'' that immigrant children may come to Florida without receiving basic medical screenings prompted him to demand information about how many children are in Florida, whether they are being screened, and what illnesses they have.
"This information is urgently needed to guard the health and safety of Florida communities across our state and is vital to the well-being of those children from the border who may have come through the flawed federal system," wrote Armstrong, secretary of the Department of Health, an agency under Gov. Rick Scott's supervision.
In an email to the Tampa Bay Times Friday, an HHS spokesman explained that all of the children are screened for illnesses at the border and receive care if needed.
Armstrong's letter, which in a rare move was sent not only to government officials but also to news media, marks the second time this summer that Scott's administration has jumped into a federal issue. In late May, Scott sued the federal government demanding that his inspectors gain access to Florida's veteran hospitals although state officials have no jurisdiction over the federal facilities.
Armstrong's letter Friday provided no information about previous health issues posed by immigrants to Florida. Asked for comment, his office said the letter would stand on its own.
The leader of a Miami organization that helps immigrants questioned Armstrong's motives.
"In the last several months, as the number of these children has dramatically increased, we're seeing more children than ever on a weekly basis, and our staff is interacting with these children every day," said Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice.
"And we're not worried about catching a dangerous disease; the children may get a cold like any other child."
Little's organization assisted 1,600 children in 2013 and is already close to surpassing that number this year.
"I think it's about pulling the welcome mat from under these children, and it's clearly going to wrongly instill fear in the lives of folks for no good reason," she said of the letter.
"Children from this region of the world participate in comprehensive childhood vaccination programs, similar to the United States, and are generally well-protected from most vaccine-preventable diseases,'' wrote HHS spokesman Kenneth J. Wolfe in an email.
Armstrong's letter won the approval of Jack Oliver, legislative director for anti-immigration group Floridians for Immigration Enforcement.
"I think the (letter) raises a valid point that we need to make sure that these children are screened, that they don't have any type of communicable illnesses that affect other children," Oliver said.
Still, Oliver said, his preference is for these minors to be returned to their home countries.
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