TAMPA — Aztrith Oliva knows how important shelter can be for child immigrants who make the grueling journey north toward the dream of a better life in the United States.
She was 14 when she and her brother Victor, 17, decided to leave their native Honduras, where two out of three people live in poverty and a quarter-million people had been forced from their homes by violence, extortion and gang recruiters. Their parents also were abusing the two teens, Oliva said.
They traveled more than 2,000 miles to the Texas border, some of it aboard the infamous northbound train known in Mexico as “La Bestia,” or The Beast. They surrendered to U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement and remained two weeks in the custody of the law enforcement agency before they were transferred to a private shelter in San Antonio under a contract with the federal government.
They spent a month in the shelter, well cared for while they sought a more permanent placement. An aunt awaited them in New York. Today, five years later, they have gained protected status and are seeking permanent U.S. residency; Victor in New York and Aztrith in Tampa.
The story of other child immigrants has played out in a similar way at shelters across the United States, including Florida. But now, Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken steps to stop shelters here from housing them. Some shelters could be forced to send child immigrants away as early as this month.
Republican DeSantis argues that child immigrants push at-risk Florida children out of shelters because the federal government pays far more than the state does for limited shelter beds — $500 to $1,400 per child each day compared to $158.
But the state’s position is also part of a broader feud over federal immigration policy with the administration of President Joe Biden, a Democrat. DeSantis is seeking $8 million in this year’s state budget to resettle immigrants outside Florida if they entered the country illegally, suggesting Biden’s home state of Delaware as a better location.
Oliva, now 18, urged authorities to make more shelter space available for child immigrants, not less, and to stop treating children like her as pawns in a partisan game.
“Adding political conditions on the care of migrant children and youth is a very selfish position,” she said. “It’s not right.”
Immigrant advocates questioned DeSantis’ reasoning for his order in December to stop issuing or renewing the licenses of shelters that contract with the federal government to temporarily house migrant children and teenagers.
They said his new rule will hobble foster families, shelters and faith-based organizations that seek to house vulnerable child immigrants and stall family reunification efforts at a time when COVID-19 already has made them difficult.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“We are talking about shelters that work with federal money and that employ local and community professionals,” said Frankie Miranda, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Hispanic Federation. “It is a cheap, cruel and political move by Gov. DeSantis.”
The Hispanic Federation and more than 100 other individuals and organizations signed a letter calling on DeSantis to withdraw his order. They said the order will displace hundreds of children and stall family reunification efforts. More than 200 Florida faith leaders signed a similar petition Jan. 21.
The order is both immoral and irrational, said John Barry, a lawyer with the Orlando Center for Justice, which represents unaccompanied minors in Central Florida.
“Most of these kids qualify for immigration relief under our current laws,” Barry said. “They will become legal permanent residents and will be productive members of our society.”
The order runs counter to a long history in Florida of helping child immigrants who are on their own, said Nathan Bult with Bethany Christian Services, an evangelical foster care and adoption service working in 30 states and more than a dozen countries. One example, Bult said: Parents opposed to communist rule in Cuba sent thousands of their children to the United States in the early 1960s through what was called Operation Peter Pan.
“We should try to help these children and their families together, regardless of their immigration status,” Bult said.
Under the DeSantis order, state-licensed shelters will lose their licenses if they continue to contract with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. State officials suggested Florida might agree to issue licenses if the White House agrees to consult with Florida about resettlement operations.
“We hope this action will serve as a deterrent to the Biden administration’s massive human-smuggling operation, while protecting Florida’s most vulnerable kids,” Christina Pushaw, the governor’s spokeswoman, told the Tampa Bay Times.
In deciding how much it pays contractors who shelter at-risk children, Florida uses a more cost-effective method than the federal government and ensures contractors are only compensated for services they actually provide, Pushaw said.
Across Florida, 16 shelters contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement — many of them churches and nonprofits such as the Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services in Clearwater and Lutheran Services Florida, a Tampa-based organization that operates the Dream Center for child immigrants in Sarasota.
Gulf Coast was awarded a $2.5 million federal contract in 2020 to establish a shelter for up to 50 children between 10 and 17. The Dream Center has taken in about 290 unaccompanied migrant children since November 2020.
The Dream Center still has a license to operate from the state Department of Children and Families and continues to care for some child immigrants, said Terri Durdaller, spokeswoman for Lutheran Services Florida. Durdaller worries what will happen to child immigrants in Florida without help from the shelters.
“Child migrants are more in danger of trafficking, abuse and violence,” she said. “These kids have seen a side of the world that we hope no children will ever have to see.”
She said she hopes state and federal authorities can resolve their differences.
“We are not a political organization and do not intend to make any value judgment on policies,” Durdaller said.
Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services referred all questions about sheltering child immigrants to federal authorities.
All told, four centers in Tampa contract to shelter child immigrants, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told the Tampa Bay Times. Each provides care for children up to 17. The department said it would not disclose the names or locations of the centers to protect the security and privacy of the children in their care.
Local communities, churches and nonprofit groups have a long history of taking care of children in need, said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat.
“I urge the governor to revoke this short-sighted, cruel order and allow Florida partners, like Lutheran Services’ Dream Center, to continue their mission,” Castor said.
Nationwide, more than 11,000 unaccompanied minors were released to sponsors between October 2020 and September 2021, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
It’s important to get children out of law enforcement custody and into shelters as soon as possible, said Alayne Unterberger, director of the nonprofit Florida Institute for Community Studies, which helps immigrant communities in Town ‘N Country and Wimauma.
“We know that our government is capable of doing this and avoiding detention,” Unterberger said.
The federal government has used child detention as a misguided way to deter illegal immigration, she said.
Any prolonged detention runs counter to settled case law in the United States, Unterberger said, pointing to the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement on protections for vulnerable child immigrants. The agreement requires the government to transfer minors to licensed child care programs and, within 72 hours, to a parent, family member or sponsor.
If the agreement were followed, there would be little demand for shelter space, Unterberger said.
“Wherever children are held, the facility must be licensed,” she said. “If the state does not license them, we would be in violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling.”
Streamlining the placement of children in permanent homes should be the priority for authorities at all levels, said Milton Toro Marquez, a Tampa immigration attorney. Cutting off shelters in Florida would hamper the process, he said, and deepen the despair of immigrants who are in a struggle to survive.
“The immigration system has been in total chaos for some time and lacks sufficient policies to address all these matters,” Toro said.
Aztrith Oliva knows about the struggle to survive.
On their journey from the city of San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras, she and her brother — members of Honduras’ Garifuna Indigenous community — slept in the open and endured punishing weather. They finally crossed the Rio Grande with a large group of Central Americans.
But they were provided shelter, reunited with their aunt and obtained the protected status that allows them to remain in the United States. Oliva and her aunt moved to Tampa two years later. Her brother decided to stay in New York to work and pursue permanent status, with a green card and eventually citizenship.
Oliva, now 18, is near the top of her class at King High School in Tampa, working part time at a grocery store in Temple Terrace and hoping soon to send money to her five brothers and sisters in Honduras.
She learned English in less than two years and hopes to study social psychology at the University of Georgia.
She counts her blessings as a new resident of the United States and hopes children who follow her will find success here, as well — without the political gamesmanship that threatens to hold up their progress.
“It is my nightly dream.”