Proposed Florida rules could be costly for agencies that care for immigrant children

A proposed rule from Gov. Ron DeSantis could require agencies to conduct twice-a-year welfare checks on immigrant placed with sponsors.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux) [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Feb. 25, 2022

Required welfare checks mandated in a controversial proposed rule from Gov. Ron DeSantis that cracks down on organizations that house unaccompanied immigrant youth on behalf of the federal government could cost millions of additional dollars, according to a cost analysis from the Florida Department of Children and Families.

It directs state child care regulators to deny licenses to shelters, foster agencies, and foster homes that care for and house unaccompanied migrant children on behalf of the federal government unless Florida agrees to a resettlement agreement with the feds.

It would also require service providers to conduct twice-a-year welfare checks on the children they place with sponsors until they reach the age of 18, leave Florida, or are removed from the U.S., among other conditions. The checks would be conducted by the child-caring facilities and child-placing agencies, according to the proposed rule.

It’s the required in-person visits that would rack up the extra costs, according to the estimated cost analysis, which looks at the financial impact of the measure.

Examples of estimated costs for the in-person welfare checks, if all the staff conducting the checks live outside the provider areas, included nearly $2 million within six months of implementation. Those numbers went up to $16.8 million for child-caring facilities and $2.6 million for child-placing agencies within the first five years.

“The total cost to conduct welfare checks on (unaccompanied minors) until they reach the age of 18 varies on the age of the child when they were placed with a sponsor,” acknowledges the report.

The state agency found that more than 4,000 unaccompanied migrant children were served by Florida’s 17 child-caring facilities, five child-placing agencies, and 60 foster homes last year.

The cost analysis said that the rule would apply to the Unaccompanied Children’s Program, but not the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program, both run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal office that cares for unaccompanied migrant children.

The refugee minors program offers “specialized foster care” for refugee and asylum-seeking minors and trafficking victims, as well as Cuban and Haitian kids, according to the resettlement office. The Department of Children and Families costs report said that the unaccompanied minors program is entirely federally funded, and that losing their licenses puts the shelters, foster homes and child-placing agencies at risk of losing federal aid.

“Absent a cooperative agreement, any existing licensee that accepts (unaccompanied minors) may have its license suspended or revoked. This could result in entities losing federal funding to care for (unaccompanied minors),” said the cost report.

Currently, the shelters receive approximately $66 million dollars from the federal government to house the unaccompanied minors, according to the state report.

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami, which housed 352 children in 2021, received $10 million, according to the report.

Meanwhile, His House Children’s Home, another Miami-area organization, received nearly $8 million to care for hundreds of unaccompanied minors.

The Biden administration sent a letter Tuesday telling DeSantis’ general counsel, Ryan Newman, that state-issued licenses are not a requirement to receive money from the federal government, and that Florida cannot penalize the service providers for operating through the federal contracts.

Related: Feds say state licenses not needed for migrant children shelters to stay open

“Under the Supremacy Clause, Florida cannot take action against federal contractors for activities that are expressly authorized by federal law,” reads the letter from Mark Greenberg, deputy general counsel of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, referring to the U.S. Constitution.

Greenberg added that a letter from Newman had made clear that Florida did not intend to enter any cooperative agreement so the federal government could resettle children.

“The state of Florida will no longer participate in a federal program that encourages child trafficking,” the Department of Children and Families told the Miami Herald, “The federal government should not place children in unlicensed facilities unless it plans to provide oversight.”

Since the measure was proposed earlier this month, opposition has been growing among Florida religious leaders, South Florida business leaders and some Cuban-Americans who came to Florida through Operation Pedro Pan in the 1960s. Others who arrived in Operation Pedro Pan have come out in support of DeSantis’ proposal.

Detractors have put more pressure on DeSantis and Florida lawmakers, who are also considering legislation that would discourage private companies that transport “unauthorized” migrants into Florida on behalf of the federal government.

Related: More Florida faith leaders speak out against immigration bill

They have written opinion columns, launched strongly-worded ads against DeSantis and Miami state senators, and sent letters to the governor’s office.

In a nearly two-hour meeting Thursday, the Department of Children and Families took comments from the public on the proposed rule.

A group of service providers, immigration advocates, attorneys and religous leaders attended the virtual hearing. Among them was Joel Tooley, lead pastor of Melbourne First Church of the Nazarene, who is also a former director of a shelter for unaccompanied migrant youth and consultant with the Evangelical Immigration Table.

Tooley asked who the DeSantis administration considers to be “Florida children,” alluding to comments from the agency and the governor’s office that the proposal was issued in part to ensure the state’s vulnerable kids get the shelter and services they need.

“Who are they? Are they children who were born in Florida? Are they just passing through? I have kids who were born in Kansas, but they live here. Are they considered Florida’s children?” Tooley told the Miami Herald.

Nate Bult, senior vice president of public and government affairs from Bethany Christian Services, a nationwide organization that places unaccompanied youth with foster families in Florida, said the department was unable to answer key questions about the proposed rule. He pointed out that groups like his were set up around religious tenets that emphasize caring for the vulnerable.

“We’re called by our faith to welcome the stranger and to love our neighbor. And so that’s why we started unaccompanied children programs. So the state of Florida is essentially telling us that we have to pick and choose which population of vulnerable kids we want to help,” he said.

The concerns echo those from a Jan. 24 joint statement from Hispanic evangelical church leaders and the Florida Council of Churches, which said they see the executive action and the pending legislation as “religious persecution and restriction on our freedom to worship.”

Related: Child immigrants at Tampa Bay shelters caught up in state-federal squabble

The Southern Poverty Law Center sent four lawyers to the public comment hearing, who asked about the impact and legal parameters of the measure. Anne Janet Hernandez Anderson, a senior supervising attorney with the center’s Immigrant Justice Project, said she was “surprised” the agency did not go line by line through the proposed rule, but that the format of the meeting allowed generous time for comment.

In respect to the collaborative agreement requirement, Hernandez Anderson said that it was “unusual” for a state to seek to impose a requirement on the federal government, which she believes could be unconstitutional.

The department told the Miami Herald that the next step is for the agency to compile public comment. The public has until March 2 to send comments on the rule to the agency. Then, the rule will go to the state legislature for approval.

As the administrative hearing was taking place, hundreds of Hispanic evangelicals from across Florida gathered at the state Capitol to voice their opposition to DeSantis’ immigration platform, worried that their work with migrant children would be affected.

Together, they prayed that DeSantis would reverse his immigration policies and then marched to the offices of the governor and several legislators, including Senate President Wilton Simpson and members of the Miami-Dade delegation, to deliver letters in opposition to the immigration bills.

“This proposal ... is decisive for us in South Florida,” said Pastor Luis Roberto Piña, the president of Academia Internacional de Capellania in Miami. “Because we are the ones that are working with [children] every day.”

Piña said the governor’s immigration platform could “definitely” have an impact on how Christians and evangelicals vote in November, when DeSantis will be on the ballot for re-election.

He said it is not about political affiliation, it is about voting for values and principles that align with the church.

“Without a doubt this could have an effect,” Piña said.

Some 250 miles from Tallahaassee, DeSantis appeared to double down on his hardline immigration proposals Thursday at the national Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando.

Related: DeSantis warns CPAC Florida crowd that left wants to make Republicans 'second-class citizens'

“We are in the process of getting money from the Legislature so that if Biden is dumping illegal aliens into Florida from the southern border I am rerouting them to Delaware,” said DeSantis, whose comments were met with roaring applause and a standing ovation.

DeSantis was referring to an $8 million proposal he wants legislators to include in a more than $100 billion state budget that legislators are currently negotiating. The Republican-led Legislature has not approved that request yet.