Shelters for migrant kids concerned over new DeSantis rule

Gov. Ron DeSantis in December directed the state to stop renewing licenses of facilities that contract with the federal government to house migrant children.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral on Sept. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee. File)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral on Sept. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee. File) [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Jan. 7, 2022|Updated Jan. 7, 2022

Florida shelters that house migrant children on behalf of the federal government say they’re increasingly worried that a feud between Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration and President Joe Biden over his immigration policies will force them to relocate hundreds of children outside the state.

That’s because, in mid-December, DeSantis directed Florida child care regulators to stop issuing or renewing the licenses of facilities that contract with the federal government to house migrant children and teenagers who are waiting to be reunited with their families or vetted sponsors.

The order will not revoke existing licenses but will not allow Florida shelters to house more migrant children than they already do. The policy change could impact the resettlement of hundreds of migrant children in Florida, where, according to federal data, more than 11,000 unaccompanied minors were released to sponsors between October 2020 and September 2021.

Some providers say the move will put the safety and well-being of children at the center of an immigration debate that, aside from the cost of renewing licenses, they argue comes at no significant cost to the state.

“We oppose the executive order because we support children,” said Silvia Smith-Torres, executive director of His House Children’s Home in Miami Gardens. “This is like a divorce. DeSantis and Biden divorce. And who gets affected? The children. The reality is, 85-90 percent of the children that cross the border, the parents are already somewhere in the United States. They are all working.”

His House is the largest foster group home in the state and has had a standing contract with the federal government to house unaccompanied children since 2008.

But DeSantis, who is widely rumored to be considering a run for president in 2024 and is a vocal Biden foe, is framing the policy as a necessary step for Florida to counteract the federal government’s failing at the southern border and deter what the governor’s office calls a “clandestine resettlement” of migrant children in Florida.

Related: DeSantis wants $8 million to remove 'unauthorized aliens' from Florida

“I want our resources focused on the needs for Florida kids and the needs we have in our communities. These are people who are coming from other countries, they shouldn’t be allowed into this country,” DeSantis said last month when asked by reporters about the rule.

The rule was part of a larger announcement from DeSantis to tackle federal immigration reform, including an $8 million budget to remove undocumented people from the state and criticizing what they have said are “clandestine” flights carrying unaccompanied minors to Florida.

Providers, however, say the DeSantis administration has provided little to no information about steps they can take to ensure a smooth transition into compliance.

“They haven’t told us what they want us to do differently,” Smith-Torres told the Miami Herald last month. “We don’t have anything official right now. The only threat right now is that our license won’t be renewed in May.”

History of Florida housing unaccompanied minors

Florida does not publish data on how many unaccompanied children are currently housed in the state, and the Department of Children and Families did not respond to repeated questions from the Herald on whether that figure was taken into consideration when drafting the new rule. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are 16 shelters in Florida that currently contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement Residential Care Program.

Shelters have housed unaccompanied migrant children in Florida for years, one as far back as the early 1960s during Operation Pedro Pan, a massive exodus of unaccompanied Cuban children who were sent primarily to Miami out of fear by parents on the island that the communist Cuban government would forcibly indoctrinate children.

Peter Routsis-Arroyo, CEO of Catholic Charities, oversees the Msgr. Bryan Walsh Children’s Village (also known as “Boys Town”), which he says is the longest-running shelter of unaccompanied minors in the state, and likely in the country. Its history began with caring for Pedro Pan children.

“When we took them in they were not refugees, they were unaccompanied minors,” said Routsis-Arroyo. The children who are arriving now, he said, “are fleeing conditions very similar to that.”

Routsis-Arroyo said they are licensed to take in about 81 children at a time, but with COVID restrictions they’ve reduced that number to 50.

“Many of them have roots in the state of Florida and why traumatize a child again if they can be housed ... in Florida to be reunited with family here in Florida? Why would you ship them to Texas to reunite them with family in Florida?” Routsis-Arroyo said of the new rule.

“We’re very concerned, we’re still hopeful that the governor and the state and the feds will work on an agreement that will allow us to continue to serve these children, which is a major part of our mission,” he added.

It is unclear whether the governor and the Biden administration are close to reaching an agreement on the matter. DeSantis remains intent on pushing through with Florida’s emergency rule, and a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson said they have a legal responsibility to care for unaccompanied children.

“It is our legal responsibility to safely care for unaccompanied children until they can be swiftly unified with a parent or a vetted sponsor,” the Health and Human Services spokesperson said in a statement.

The cost of caring for migrant kids

The state is also now asking facilities to make “welfare checks” on the unaccompanied minors every six months until they turn 18, are granted legal immigration status or leave the state permanently, something that the Department of Children and Families has argued is meant to be an additional layer of protection for the unaccompanied minors currently in the state.

The rule mirrors a policy issued by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, earlier this year. DeSantis’ office said Florida’s action is meant to be “a deterrent to the Biden administration’s massive human-smuggling operation,” although the placement of migrant children in Florida through federal contracts has long been a standard practice, including under the Trump administration.

DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw has said the state needs to move forward with the policy change because the state cannot compete with the rate the federal government pays providers to house unaccompanied minors.

“The unfair competition from federal contracts was threatening to create a situation where the state could not contract with enough providers to secure facilities for all the kids in our state (who are citizens or permanent residents) to receive the services they need and are entitled to,” Pushaw said in a statement Wednesday.

So far, one shelter that was granted a license to take in migrant children in 2020 under the Trump administration sued the Department of Children and Families last month for stonewalling when it tried to renew its annual state license. The Dream Center in Tampa, which is operated by Lutheran Services, said it was forced to relocate 60 unaccompanied children. In response to the suit, the state renewed the license.

Since November 2020, the Dream Center has taken in approximately 290 unaccompanied migrant children. All referrals are generated from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Border Patrol.

Terri Durdaller, a spokesperson for Lutheran Services Florida, said the shelter “continues to care” for unaccompanied minors as of the first week of January, and says she hopes the state and the federal governments can reach an agreement that will allow “vulnerable children to be cared for safely.”

“We fear what may happen to these children without these services in the future,” Durdaller said.

For several years, unaccompanied migrant children have crossed the Southwest border and been sent to shelters and other temporary housing in Florida. According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, from October 2020 to September 2021, about 11,145 unaccompanied minors in Florida were released to sponsors, a number beaten only by Texas as the highest in the country.

The state-licensed shelters are part of a federally funded network overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help care for and provide temporary housing to hundreds of children.

To defend the new rule, DeSantis and the department have frequently referred to the case of an undocumented migrant from Honduras, Yery Noel Medina Ulloa, who is accused of second-degree murder in the killing of 46-year-old Francisco Javier Cuellar. Police say Medina Ulloa initially lied to police about his age and said he was 17, a detail that DeSantis says is evidence that not all unaccompanied children actually are minors.

DeSantis has not indicated any intention of backing down and facilities could start losing their child care licenses as early as February if they continue to contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

That’s because the state’s Department of Children and Families said on Dec. 13, 2021, that facilities had 45 days to stop accepting migrant children and teenagers under their contract with the federal government.

Pushaw, DeSantis’ press secretary, suggested to the Herald in a statement that the state does not plan to back down from the rule as long as the federal government doesn’t share more information with the state regarding the relocation of migrants to the state.

“The new DCF emergency rule does indicate that a license might be granted for a state facility housing unaccompanied minors only if the State of Florida and the federal government were to enter a cooperative agreement requiring the Biden administration to consult with Florida’s state government in advance of any resettlement operation,” Pushaw said.

“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,” she added.

A personal experience with the process

Julio Calderón, a 32-year-old financial consultant living in Miami’s Little Havana, understands firsthand what it’s like to be an unaccompanied child in custody. In 2005, when he was just 16, Calderón and his brother migrated to the U.S. from their native Honduras and were apprehended in Roma, Texas.

Although his parents were living in Miami, Calderón said, he and his brother were not placed in a shelter for unaccompanied minors because, he recalls, they were all full at the time. Instead, both were kept in an immigration detention center in Texas for four days before they were released and his mom was able to pick them up.

“No kid should be without their immediate family member,” said Calderón. “It’s exhausting mentally, it’s very exhausting. You go day to day really trying to find hope.”

Calderón said that although most of the children who are coming into the U.S. without their parents are from Central America, he hoped more Cuban migrants, especially those who came as kids through “Operation Peter Pan,” would support their cause.

“I really want to make it clear that we need help and I think they’re the only ones who understand what it’s like to come as a kid and struggle through the system,” said Calderón. “I think they can really help us out.”