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Don’t hold migrant children hostage in immigration debate | Editorial
Shelters in Florida have critical role to play in easing humanitarian crisis
In this March 14, 2021, file photo, migrant children and teenagers are processed after entering the site of a temporary holding facility south of Midland, Texas. (Eli Hartman/Odessa American via AP, File)
In this March 14, 2021, file photo, migrant children and teenagers are processed after entering the site of a temporary holding facility south of Midland, Texas. (Eli Hartman/Odessa American via AP, File) [ ELI HARTMAN ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jan. 11

Last year’s surge of migrants at America’s southern border was but the latest picture of a broken immigration system. Yet while it’s beyond time for solutions from Washington, what doesn’t help is making migrant children in Florida political pawns in a standoff between the state and federal governments.

As the Miami Herald reported last week, 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. In December, the Republican governor 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 rule was part of a broader push from DeSantis to assail the Democratic president on immigration as the governor mulls a potential White House run in 2024.

While the order will not revoke existing licenses, it would bar Florida shelters from housing more migrant children, which providers say would jeopardize the well being of minors who already are struggling with upended lives. The change could affect the resettlement of hundreds of migrant children in the state, where more than 11,000 unaccompanied minors were released to sponsors between October 2020 and September 2021. The operator of the largest foster group home in Florida said the rule change would largely hurt the children of adult migrants already here, causing more upheaval and greater uncertainty over the placement of an unaccompanied child.

The U.S. Border Patrol intercepted about 2 million unauthorized migrants last year, nearly twice as many as in 2019 and the highest number recorded since at least 1960. While many are fleeing violence and poverty in Central America, the Biden administration, seeking to undo the harsh policies of former President Donald Trump, has its share of the blame for the mixed messages it sent about border enforcement.

Still, using migrant children already here and awaiting placement as chits in a political debate is simply cruel. It doesn’t help seal the border or improve the fairness and efficiency of America’s immigration system. If anything, it merely adds another polarizing layer to the slow search for solutions, while doing nothing to protect the lives of unaccompanied minors or to help shelter groups manage the caseload.

“Many of them have roots in the state of Florida,” Peter Routsis-Arroyo, CEO of Catholic Charities, which oversees the Msgr. Bryan Walsh Children’s Village, told the Herald. ”Why would you ship them to Texas to reunite them with family in Florida?”

Florida has a long history of resettling migrant children, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a legal responsibility to care for them. The state-licensed shelters and federally funded network are a natural collaborative to provide these services. The DeSantis and Biden administrations need to ensure these homes and placement programs operate uninterrupted, even as states and the federal government haggle over broader and longer-term solutions to immigration policy. These are children, not chess pieces in the partisan war over who lost control of America’s border.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.