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Migrant children caught in the middle

Pastors and Christian care providers protest Florida’s emergency immigration order

A shelter for migrant teenage girls in Lake Worth, Fla., in 2019 Associated Press/Photo by Wilfredo Lee, file

Migrant children caught in the middle

Foster parents and organizations working with unaccompanied migrant children cannot renew their state licenses in Florida because of a recent emergency order by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. The order forbids any state executive agency from assisting the federal government, federal contractors, or any nongovernmental organization in transporting into Florida migrants who crossed the U.S. border illegally.

DeSantis says his order aims to address what he calls “Biden’s border crisis” and the lack of transparency from the federal government about the migrant children it sends into the state. But the Republican governor’s executive action has stirred a debate over the state’s care for vulnerable children. Hundreds of religious leaders signed a letter in January urging DeSantis to revoke the order, arguing children “have the right and inherent dignity to receive love and care.”

At one family home in Florida, handmade art still hangs on the walls of the bedrooms of two unaccompanied teen migrants. The siblings were removed from their foster family after the state failed to renew the parents’ license, local news station WPTV reported. Similarly, the Dream Center in Sarasota was forced to relocate nearly 60 unaccompanied migrant children it had been caring for. After the Dream Center’s parent company, Lutheran Services Florida, sued the Florida Department of Children and Families, it received an amendment to its federal contract that waived the need for a state license. But the group is still waiting for its lawsuit to make its way through court, according to WPTV.

The shelters are a part of a program created in 2002 with funding from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Shelters that receive the funding care for unaccompanied migrant children until they are united with a relative or sponsor, typically after a few weeks. In Florida, 16 federally funded shelters house unaccompanied minor immigrants. Many of these facilities are faith-based. All shelters that house children must have a state license.

A surge of migrant children in 2021 overwhelmed U.S. border operations. In the first five months of fiscal year 2021, U.S. Border Patrol encountered 47,642 unaccompanied children, a sharp increase from 33,000 in all of 2020. Border Patrol agents temporarily bring unaccompanied minors to facilities designed to hold adults, but after 72 hours, they are legally required to transport children to an ORR shelter. Florida, Texas, and Arizona are the federal government’s top resettlement states for migrants, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The order from DeSantis requires facilities to demonstrate sufficient “evidence of need” to the Florida Department of Children and Families before awarding licenses to any organization providing care. The governor’s office says the U.S. government’s resettlement of unaccompanied minors from outside Florida does not meet the state’s “evidence of need” standard.

Pastor Joel Tooley of Melbourne First Church of the Nazarene in Florida signed the letter to DeSantis. He is a board member for Bethany Christian Services, a nonprofit that works with ORR to place children. He said vulnerable children should not pay the cost of Florida’s conflict with the federal government.

Another signer, National Latino Evangelical Coalition President Gabriel Salguero, said he has seen firsthand the rampant gang violence that compels many children to flee their home countries. “We can’t ignore children at our doorstep,” he said.

DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw said in an emailed statement that the federal government’s high reimbursement rate for the care of unaccompanied migrant children incentivizes state-licensed facilities to hold space for migrants instead of providing for Florida foster children. The ORR pays $500-1,400 per bed per day to operators. Florida’s average daily rate is $158 for each child served, not per bed. Pushaw said such “unfair competition” threatens the state’s ability to contract with enough providers to care for Florida’s children.

Pushaw added that the governor’s order gives organizations a 45-day grace period to transition to the new emergency rule. She said the state would be willing to renew licenses if the Biden administration would agree to notify Florida officials before any further resettlement operations.

Lora Ries, a senior research fellow for homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, called DeSantis’ order “a good step.” She argues the current system does not protect children but puts them into the hands of smugglers. She pointed to the 2008 William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, whose Section 235 gives benefits to migrant children who cross the U.S. border alone, as flawed legislation that encourages more children to make dangerous trips to the border.

However, Bri Stensrud of Women of Welcome, a Christian network of over 130,000 women across the country advocating for immigrants and refugees, said the order is “forcing [foster facilities] to choose between vulnerable kids.” She noted there are over 19,000 kids in foster care in Florida, with 600 still awaiting permanent family placements. She called on DeSantis to focus on uniting traditional pro-life advocates for adoption and foster care with those who are passionate about helping immigrant children.

“I’m troubled to see the governor restricting the rights of religious organizations to live out their faith,” added Matthew Soerens, national coordinator for the Evangelical Immigration Table.

Last summer, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order demanding that state child care regulators discontinue licenses from facilities that care for unaccompanied children who crossed the southern border without papers. In response to criticism, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission issued an emergency rule that allows shelters to continue to operate without a state license for now.

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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