TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida's history of welcoming immigrants, especially children who arrive in the state without their parents, is officially entering a new era that isn’t so welcoming.
In a statement released Monday afternoon, Bethany Christian Services near Orlando announced they are "no longer able to provide safe, temporary care for unaccompanied children in Florida due to Gov. [Ron] DeSantis' rule."
Bethany Christian is the first and only provider so far to end its program for unaccompanied children.
The announcement comes nine months after DeSantis signed an executive order taking aim at stopping illegal immigration into the state.
Part of the order also targets children by directing Florida's Department of Children and Families (DCF) not to relicense the more than dozen providers in the state who temporarily house unaccompanied migrant children for the federal government as the children wait to be reunited with family or vetted sponsors here as part of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
In an exclusive interview with Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone several months ago, leaders from the nonprofit expressed concerns over how the order was leaving them and the foster parents they support in a confusing state of limbo.
In response to the governor's order and DCF rule mirroring his order, the federal government has advised providers that they don't need state licenses to operate under the federal program.
"I can't believe this, it doesn't make any sense to me. It just doesn't," explained Bethany Christian foster parent recruiter Jo-Ann Ortiz about the governor's order.
She believes it is a harsh attack on innocent children escaping danger in their homelands for the chance at freedom in the U.S.
"We are disappointed and disheartened to see our short-term foster care program ending," Chris Palusky, Bethany’s president and CEO said Monday.
Advocates are also disappointed.
"I'm saddened that organizations like Bethany Christian Services, who have a proven track record of caring for the vulnerable, that they would be forced to make this kind of decision that goes against their standards and goes against their hope to care for children," Pastor Joel Tooley, a Melbourne pastor and immigration advocate and Bethany board member, said.
He is not aware of any other providers who are planning to end their programs or close their shelters for unaccompanied children, though it's unclear when those annual licenses are up for renewal.
Tooley also led the charge behind a letter sent to the governor and DCF earlier this year pleading with state leaders to keep children out of what had become an increasingly combative political feud between DeSantis and President Joe Biden.
The letter was signed by hundreds of faith-based leaders from around the state urging the governor to rescind his order targeting children.
But DeSantis, who is long rumored to be eyeing a race for the White House, hasn't back down.
This session, Florida lawmakers also passed an unprecedented immigration bill that penalizes transportation companies that bring illegal immigrants into Florida, including unaccompanied minors sent here by the federal government.
DeSantis has yet to sign the bill.
The governor maintains his priority is to keep Florida children first. However, there is no evidence his order has any impact on that since the more than dozen providers who offer services and provide temporary shelter to unaccompanied migrant children do it under the operation and funds of the federal government.
In its statement, Bethany Christian Services said it has provided short-term care to more than 125 unaccompanied kids since 2019. Leaders also addressed the politics, they believe, forced them to end that part of its mission.
"This is a sad moment for our state, and we grieve for the children who will now face living in unlicensed shelters or centers that don't provide adequate care," Tawnya Brown, senior vice president of Global, Refugee, and Immigrant Services for Bethany Christian said. "Using vulnerable children as political pawns is unacceptable."
Neither the governor's office nor DCF responded to our request for comment.