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Faith leaders call on Gov. Ron DeSantis to rescind order against migrant children

Executive order puts federally funded shelters at risk of closing
Posted at 2:03 PM, Jan 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-24 12:11:47-05

If faith is a belief in a higher power, Florida religious leaders are trusting Gov. Ron DeSantis' own faith will help encourage him to back off an order he signed aimed at unaccompanied migrant children.

Pastor Joel Tooley leads a church in Melbourne.

He is a long-time immigrant advocate and a mobilizer for Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of Christians who encourage bi-partisan solutions to immigration reform.

Tooley is also leading the charge behind a letter sent Thursday night to DeSantis.

The letter, signed by hundreds of faith-based leaders from around Florida, asks the governor to withdraw an executive order he signed that directs Florida's Department of Children and Families (DCF) not to renew the licenses of federally funded shelters in Florida that care for unaccompanied migrant children as part of a decades-old program under the federal government's Office of Refugee Resettlement.

The letter states, in part, "vulnerable children, regardless of where they are born, have the right and inherent dignity to receive love and care. Florida should not be the one saying there is no room at the inn."

"It's not a political issue for us. It's an issue of humanity. It's an issue of compassion," said Tooley. "We can't wait for this to get worse. We have to speak. We have to act now."

Tooley operated a shelter for unaccompanied teenage boys before it was abruptly shut down under the administration of President Barack Obama.

"We have a responsibility to care for these kids, no matter how they come or what their background is," Tooley said.

The letter is the latest opposition to an ongoing controversy that we were the first to expose in November.

READ: Below is the full letter sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis regarding the issue

At the time, we discovered that DCF had stopped renewing the licenses of Florida foster families and shelters who were caring for migrant children, many of them faith-based.

The Dream Center in Sarasota is one shelter that had to relocate nearly 60 children in its care when DCF inexplicably didn;t renew its state license.

After the center's parent company, Lutheran Services, sued DCF its annual license was renewed.

The governor's move was part of a larger crackdown on illegal immigration in Florida and an ongoing feud with the Biden administration on how to handle immigration in the state.

Described by DeSantis as "Biden's Border Crisis," DeSantis maintains is part of his larger effort to focus on Florida's needs.

"I want our resources focused on the needs of Florida kids and the needs we have in our communities," the governor told Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone back in December.

However, DeSantis did not respond when LaGrone added that the shelters he's targeting are fully funded by the federal government.

Following increasing concerns about the governor’s order, which not only raise ethical and moral concerns but mounting legal concerns since the U.S. is obligated under federal law to care for migrant children who arrive here without their parents, DCF adopted a series of confusing new state rules for these shelters if they want their state licenses to be renewed.

In Florida, all shelters that care for children must be licensed by the state.

The new rules limit shelters from accepting more children beyond what they are already licensed for.

The rules also require the federal government enter an agreement with Florida detailing more about the children it sends here and providing early notification to the state before any child is sent to a Florida shelter.

There are 16 federally funded shelters in Florida currently providing these services to unaccompanied migrant children.

Earlier this month, we revealed how the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the federal agency that operates this program, sent its own letter to the governor’s administration.

In it, DHHS asked the governor and DCF for clarification on the new administrative rules and threatened legal action if the state and the feds couldn't reach an amicable resolution.

A spokesperson from DHHS confirmed Friday that it still had not received any response from Florida.

Bri Stensrud leads Women of Welcome, a group of evangelical women who advocate for treating immigrants and refugees with compassion.

Her organization also signed the letter sent to DeSantis from faith-based leaders.

She believes that instead of forcing these shelters shut, Florida should be working with immigration officials to create opportunities that help both migrant children and the thousands of Florida children who don't have homes and families.

"What would that look like if you were to flood the foster care system with willing and able families who, when these migrant children are reunified with their families?" she asked. "They're still in the system and trained up, vetted and ready to go to take in a Floridian child to make a permanent placement there."

Stensrud also said state licensure adds another layer of protection and oversight for children who are here without their parents.

Without that licensing, she fears, these children could be placed in emergency federal shelters that have been criticized for their conditions and providing sub-standard care at times.

Last summer, Gov. Greg Abbott took similar action to close shelters that were housing migrant children in his state.

When asked if she believes this is a new trend among Republican governors, Stensrud had this to say.

"I hope not. It seems to be this carrying on of a Trump-style rejection of migrant children coming into the U.S.," Stensrud replied.

Tooley remains optimistic about the future of these shelters in Florida, which has a long history of welcoming immigrants.

"I know the governor has a history of being a man of faith, and I'm trusting that our Catholic, Jewish, Christian, Hindu and Muslim communities will have some influence on his decision, and we'll see him act accordingly for the children in our society that we've been entrusted with."

For months we've been reaching out to Republican U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott but, to date, neither has responded to our requests for comment.

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