Gov. Ron DeSantis has officially informed the federal government that Florida will no longer participate in a federal program to house migrant children who enter the U.S. without their parents but are waiting to be united with relatives or sponsors here, until "significant changes" are made to federal immigration policies.
The letter, obtained by Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone on Wednesday through a public records request to the state, is dated Jan. 26.
The state's letter is a direct response to a federal letter sent to DeSantis and the Secretary of Florida's Department of Children and Families (DCF) back in December.
At the time, the feds were seeking clarification over a series of confusing new licensing rules DCF adopted for shelters that temporarily house unaccompanied children who arrive here through the federal government's Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
In Florida's response, General Counsel for DeSantis, Ryan Newman, lays out how the Biden administration’s "weak" immigration enforcement policies have made it difficult to properly vet illegal immigrants who arrive in the country through the federal ORR program.
Newman also states how Biden's administration has "exacerbated" the program for unaccompanied children with open border policies and lax immigration enforcement and cited the murder of a Florida man last year in Jacksonville by an adult who entered the country illegally claiming to be an unaccompanied minor.
READ THE FULL LETTER BELOW:
Newman added that the number of unaccompanied minors had "exploded" under Biden from 33,000 in fiscal year 2020 to 146,000 during Biden's first year in office and how the responsibility to care for unaccompanied minors isn't equal among states, with Florida and Texas taking in most children.
"For these reasons, DCF can no longer participate in or otherwise facilitate this highly flawed program until significant changes are made in federal immigration enforcement," the letter states.
Florida is among 22 states that currently have shelters contracted by the federal government to house unaccompanied minors. There are currently 16 licensed shelters in Florida that care for these children.
DeSantis' response to the feds comes months after we were the first news outlet to expose how the governor in September signed an executive order that, in part, directed DCF not to renew the state licenses of these federally funded shelters that temporarily care for unaccompanied children.
The Dream Center in Sarasota had to relocate nearly 60 kids in its care back in the fall because DCF inexplicably wouldn't renew its license. After the center’s parent company, Lutheran Services of Florida, sued DCF, the state agency renewed the non-profit's state license.
Since then, shelter providers, immigration advocates, faith-based leaders and even the medical community have all sent letters to DeSantis and DCF asking them to allow these federally funded shelters to continue providing care to "vulnerable" children and not to bring children in the middle of what appeared to be a growing political feud between the DeSantis and Biden administrations.
"It's not a political issue for us. It's an issue of humanity. It's an issue of compassion," said Pastor Joel Tooley, who works with a coalition of Christians encouraging bipartisan solutions to immigration reform.
Tooley led the charge behind a letter signed by hundreds of faith-based leaders from around the state, urging the governor to rescind his order against migrant children.
"We have a responsibility to care for these kids, no matter how they come or what their background is," he said.
The governor's order was part of a larger crackdown on illegal immigration in Florida and what he has called "Biden's Border Crisis."
DeSantis maintains the move 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," he told Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone back in December.
However, DeSantis did not respond when LaGrone added that the shelters providing care to unaccompanied minors are fully funded by the federal government.
In recent months, LaGrone and her photographer Matthew Apthorp have also told the stories of how foster parents who are federally funded to care for unaccompanied children through the ORR program, are also not getting their state licenses renewed by DCF.
During a meeting last week, Republican senators approved a bill that would penalize airlines and other transportation companies that transport illegal immigrants, including children, for the federal government.
If the bill becomes law, these companies would be banned from getting state contracts if they continue transporting immigrants into Florida for the federal government.
"They're not listening to us," said Isabel Vinnet, co-executive director of Florida's Immigrant Coalition. "It's just incredible to see our politicians focusing on an attack on children," she said in response to the bill last week.
A spokesperson from the Department of Health & Human Services, which operates the Office of Refugee Resettlement, has not responded to our request for comment about the Governor’s letter to them.
In the letter, the DeSantis administration states that shelters with existing licenses "shall not take placement of any additional UAC [unaccompanied minors] until a cooperative agreement is entered."
That agreement would include advance notice when UAC's are being transported into the state, verification of age and a criminal background check.
"It is critical that lines of responsibility and accountability are clearly drawn. So long as the Biden administration continues its irresponsible immigration policies, Florida no longer wishes to be involved in the Federal Government's UAC resettlement program," the letter states.