SAFETY HARBOR — Three days after a 17-year-old Honduran boy died in the care of a federally funded shelter for migrant children, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott and Rep. Anna Paulina Luna toured the facility Saturday but said they received no new answers about what led to his death.
The Republican members of Congress were shown the shelter on downtown’s Main Street by officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It has been operated by Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services since late 2020.
“I didn’t see anything that would lead you to believe anything has ever gone wrong in that facility, but a child died,” Scott said in a news conference after the tour. “They’ve got to be transparent. They’ve got to tell us exactly what happened.”
The teen, identified as Ángel Eduardo Maradiaga Espinoza, arrived at the shelter on May 5, according to a statement from the Honduran government. He was taken to Mease Countyside Hospital on Wednesday after he was found unconscious at 8 a.m. Doctors there spent about an hour trying to resuscitate him before pronouncing him dead.
The death, which has received international media coverage, comes as immigration has once again flared into the national spotlight with the expiration Thursday of a public health law put in place in March 2020 when coronavirus cases first started spreading across the United States. The expired law gave the U.S. authority to turn away migrants seeking refugee status at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In its place, President Joe Biden’s administration is sending more troops to the border and has announced that it will turn away asylum seekers who do not first seek refugee status in countries they traveled through before reaching the U.S. The policy is similar to one adopted by former President Donald Trump that was overturned by the courts. The Biden policy also is being challenged by migrant advocates, according to an Associated Press report .
There are now stricter penalties for migrants caught crossing illegally. They won’t be allowed to return for five years and they could face criminal prosecution if they try.
Still, Scott and Luna pointed to the teenager’s death at the Safety Harbor shelter as a consequence of an “open border” under the Biden administration and blasted the president for not doing more to prevent people crossing into the United States.
“These migrant children would not be here and would not be at risk if we did not have the policies in place that we currently do,” Luna said. “And that is why it’s so important for people to realize that poor legislation does have consequences.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration in December 2022 announced that Florida will no longer license shelters that house migrant children. The decision stripped shelters, including the one in Safety Harbor, of state oversight by allowing them to operate without a license.
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When asked if the state should regulate shelters with migrant children, Scott and Luna placed the responsibility instead on the federal government.
“I hope that (the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), who is responsible, will do everything they can to keep these kids safe,” Scott said.
In a statement to the Times, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said its Office of Refugee Resettlement monitors and evaluates the shelters for migrant children that it funds in Florida “to ensure the safety and well-being of all children in our care.” However, it declined to elaborate on its oversight of the Safety Harbor shelter.
Although the state is no longer licensing these shelters, the federal office said it still requires its facilities to meet licensing standards.
Sandra Braham, CEO of Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, said she was not authorized to talk about the shelter program or the boy’s death.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement puts unaccompanied minors in the Safety Harbor facility who are coming from various countries, such as Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. There, they await placement with sponsor families, according to Helen Rodriguez, who said she worked at the shelter from January to April 2021 as a coordinator.
Espinoza’s sponsor was notified of his death, according to the Honduran government statement. Sponsors, typically family members already in the United States, are backgrounded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement before they are given custody.
The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the death. The Honduran government has also requested, through its embassy in Washington, D.C., that U.S. officials conduct an expedited investigation.
Espinoza was the second migrant child to die in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services in two months. In March, a 4-year-old child from Honduras died after being hospitalized for cardiac arrest in Michigan, according to CBS News.
During eight months between 2018 and 2019, six migrant children died in U.S. custody or shortly after their release, CBS News reported.