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Florida among sites Trump administration is scouting for child migrant facilities

A letter was sent to Florida lawmakers on Monday.
In this Feb. 19 file photo, children line up to enter a tent at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead. [AP Photo | Wilfredo Lee]
In this Feb. 19 file photo, children line up to enter a tent at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead. [AP Photo | Wilfredo Lee]
Published Jul. 30, 2019
Updated Jul. 30, 2019

The federal government is considering Central Florida as a site for future permanent shelters to hold unaccompanied migrant children, according to a letter emailed late Monday to several Orlando-area state lawmakers.

The content of the letter was confirmed by U.S. Health and Human Services to the Times/Herald. The agency currently runs three facilities in South Miami-Dade for kids who crossed the southern border without their biological parents — the Homestead detention center and two others in Miami Gardens and Cutler Bay.

RELATED STORY: Despite Trump’s claims, ICE is arresting way more immigrants without criminal records — especially in Florida

The letter states that the Department of Health and Human Services is conducting “exploratory assessments” of “vacant properties” in Central Florida, as well as Virginia and Los Angeles after this fiscal year, and that the agency would ultimately care for the largest number of unaccompanied children “in the program’s history.”

The letter also said officials are scoping out areas with “minimal natural disaster risk, close to services/support infrastructure and near where large numbers of sponsors already live.”

Shortly after the emails were sent late Monday afternoon, they were already causing state-wide confusion. At least four lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, from both the state House and Senate, received the message, all from Central Florida districts.

“When I got it I immediately called (Orlando Mayor Buddy) Dyer’s office and (Orange County Mayor Jerry) Demings’ office and they had not seen this and they asked me to forward it to them,” said Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando. “I do think that it’ll make the news today but where it goes from there, I don’t know.”

RELATED STORY: Trump’s migrant plan for South Florida blindsides Ron DeSantis

Stewart added that the entire process seemed highly disorganized, and that she’s opposed to the idea of a new facility. “We’re separating children from families and I just don’t think central Florida wants to be a part of that,” she said.

The other Orlando lawmakers who confirmed receiving the email were Rep. Rene Plasencia, Rep. Anna Eskamani and Rep. Carlos Guillermo-Smith.

Several lawmakers from both the Tampa Bay area and South Florida said they did not receive the email — nor did House Speaker José Oliva, who hails from Miami Lakes.

The confusion was reminiscent of earlier this summer, when DeSantis was blindsided by news reports about local officials receiving communications from U.S. Customs and Border Protection relaying that the federal government was considering sending 1,000 undocumented immigrants per month to Broward and Palm Beach counties, both Democratic strongholds.

Within days, Gov. Ron DeSantis tweeted that he had spoken to President Donald Trump who told him that “he did not approve, now would approve, sending immigrants who illegally cross the border, to Florida. It is not going to happen.”

This time, at least, DeSantis, a close political ally of the president, appeared to have had notice of the message from the Trump administration. Helen Aguirre Ferré, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, said the governor’s office is “aware of the federal government’s exploratory assessment.”

“If and when it has a specific proposal for the state to consider, it will be reviewed at that time,” she said. Ferré did not say whether DeSantis supported the idea of opening a new facility in Florida.

But the news that the agency is looking at Florida, California and Virginia to have permanent detention centers for migrant children came as a surprise to many.

Just weeks ago, the Department of Health and Human Services told the Miami Herald that the agency was only looking at Atlanta, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix to stand up permanent state-licensed shelters. Department officials would not disclose when the agency made the decision to look elsewhere.

Last month, federal officials said the goal for the permanent facilities would be to house 500 children or fewer each.

Whether or not Caliburn, the company that runs the Homestead detention center, would be running the future shelters is still unclear.

When the Times/Herald asked Caliburn for comment, it deferred questions to the Department of Health and Human Services, which responded: “We have no additional information to provide at this time.”

Here’s the email letter that was sent out by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

Greetings Florida State Representatives,

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in HHS’ Administration for Children and Families is conducting exploratory assessments of vacant properties in Virginia, Central Florida, and Los Angeles to lease for potential future use as state-licensed permanent shelter locations for unaccompanied alien children (UAC). The search for an addition of permanent licensed facilities is being pursued to reduce the potential need for temporary influx shelters in the future.

The Homeland Security Act of 2002, §462(g)(2) defines an unaccompanied alien child as a child(1) has no lawful immigration status in the United States; (2) has not attained 18 years of age; and (3) with respect to whom –(i) there is no parent or legal guardian in the United States or (ii) no parent or legal guardian in the United States is available to provide care and physical custody. UAC are who are apprehended by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are transferred to the care and custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in HHS’ Administration for Children and Families. ORR is legally required to provide for the care and custody of all UAC referred to ORR until they are unified with a parent, close family relative or other appropriate sponsor while their immigration cases proceed.

ORR operates a network of over 170 facilities/programs in 23 states and has a proven track record of accountability and transparency for program operations, as well as being a good neighbor in the communities where shelters are located.

Due to the crisis on the southern border, ORR has seen a dramatic increase in referrals of UAC from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) this Fiscal Year (FY) and continues to operate in emergency influx mode. As of June 2019 (FY19-YTD), DHS has referred over 58,500 UAC to ORR, an increase of over 57 percent from the same time period in FY 2018. The number of referrals is unpredictable. This fiscal year ORR will care for the largest number of UAC in the program's history. Because of the large fluctuations in arrival numbers throughout the year, ORR maintains a mix of “standard” beds that are available year-round, and “temporary” beds that can be added or reduced as needed.

Today, there are approximately 9,500 UAC in HHS care. At the end of May 2019, the system-wide length of care in our shelters is 45 days, down from a recent high of 93 days in November 2018. We are committed to further reducing length of care, to deal with capacity issues, in ways that do not jeopardize the safety or welfare of the children.

In early 2019 HHS began working with GSA to obtain leased properties for permanent shelters throughout the country. The proposed leases are to create permanent, state-licensed capacity in our network so they will be used like all other permanent capacity and minimize the need for unlicensed temporary influx shelters in the future. The leases would be obtained by GSA for HHS through a competitive lease process over the course of approximately 16 months with occupancy in Spring 2020. The difference with this project is that we are not relying on grantees to come to the table with ready to go properties already leased. ORR will lease the properties, build them out to meet state licensure requirements, and bring in a service provider to operate them according to state licensure requirements and ORR policy and procedures. This also allows us to create permanent capacity in areas of the country with minimal natural disaster risk, close to services/support infrastructure and near where large numbers of sponsors already live. By the federal government taking on the leases and build out, we believe it will expand the number of grantees who would be willing to step forward and care for this population.

Please see the following factsheet for additional information on the program - https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/Unaccompanied-Alien-Children-Program-Fact-Sheet.pdf

HHS will continue to keep local and congressional officials informed during the on-going assessment and steps required to potentially use properties in these localities.

Please contact Darcie Johnston, Director of Intergovernmental Affairs if you have any questions.

Thanks,

Regional Director's Office - Region IV

U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services

Sam Nunn Atlanta Federal Center

Atlanta, GA 30303-8909

Region IV - AL, FL, GA, KY, MS, NC, SC, TN




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