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Debate over migrant children in Florida leaves shelters and providers in a confusing state of limbo

State is renewing licenses of providers but says you can’t accept migrant kids
Posted at 12:22 PM, Feb 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-10 12:38:35-05

Cell phone video shows the emotional reunion between a father and his two sons at a Texas airport recently.

The boys, ages 4 and 14-years-old arrived in the U.S. without their parents three weeks ago.

Their mom sent the boys to the U.S. after the Mexican cartel kidnapped an older sibling and threatened the family.

RAW VIDEO | Unaccompanied Migrant Kids Reunite with Family

Their story is not unique.

But the faith-based group that provided temporary care to these boys in Florida and have provided care to more than 100 other unaccompanied migrant children seeking freedom from violence and persecution just like them, continues to deal with an unknown future.

“I cannot believe this,” said Jo-Ann Ortiz, who recruits foster families for Bethany Christian Services in Orlando.

“It’s doesn’t make sense to me, it just doesn’t,” she said in reference to a Governor’s order making it tougher for providers like hers to care for unaccompanied minors as part of a federally funded program.

For months, Bethany hasn’t been able to accept additional migrant children into its program because of the Governor’s executive order. The organization is contracted by the federal government to care for unaccompanied minors and works to connect these children with foster families. The fosters provide temporary food and shelter to the kids while they wait to be reunited with relatives or vetted sponsors.

Bethany Christian is among the more than dozen providers in Florida who take part in this program and remain stuck in limbo after Governor Ron DeSantis ordered Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) not to renew the licenses of these providers who temporarily care for unaccompanied children through the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a long-standing program within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

After months of waiting for the state to renew the state licenses of the foster families they work with, Ortiz told us those licenses were renewed last month. But, according to Ortiz, her organization still can’t accept any new children.

“They’re renewed but they can’t take the kids they're licensed to take,” asked reporter Katie LaGrone.

“Exactly,” Ortiz said shrugging her shoulders in disbelief.

 Jo-Ann Ortiz recruits foster families for Bethany Christian Services in Orlando.

Bethany Christian points to a recent email from DCF that suggests while the organization is licensed to provide care to these children, it can’t accept them at this time.

“noticed you were placing children,” writes a DCF employee to a director at Bethany Christian. “Please ensure you refer to the 12/9 executive order and are following it,” the DCF staffer wrote.

That 12/9 order refers to a set of confusing, new administrative rules adopted by DCF in response to the Governor’s orders not to renew the licenses of providers serving unaccompanied minors. The rules limit providers from expanding the number of migrant children they serve. It also prohibits them from caring for unaccompanied migrant children unless the federal government enters into a cooperative agreement with the state detailing more information about the children who are being sent to Florida.
In a statement, Laura Walthall, a spokesperson from DCF confirmed Bethany Christian cannot accept unaccompanied minors (UAC) under the agency’s new rules.

“As you are aware, the emergency rule states that a provider cannot accept UAC unless there is an agreement with the federal government and the state. No such agreement is in place. Please direct any questions on this program to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

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What’s happening to Bethany Christian Services is the latest chapter in the ongoing political feud between the Biden and DeSantis Administrations over immigration policies. In an effort to thwart illegal immigration in Florida, DeSantis has enforced a number of unprecedented state directives. Among those orders include directing state agencies not to assist the federal government in bringing immigrants into the state, including DCF which licenses and oversees shelters that house migrant children for the federal government. Two bills are also working through the state House and Senate would penalize companies who work with the federal government to transport immigrants, including unaccompanied children, into the state.
Governor DeSantis, who is widely rumored to be making a run for the White House, maintains the crackdown is the result of “Biden’s Border Crisis” and any actions against children are efforts to ensure the needs of Florida children are met, not children from other countries.

In response to questions posed by the federal government about DCF’s new rules for migrant children shelters in Florida, last month Governor DeSantis’ General Counsel sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services, accusing the federal government of participating in a “human trafficking scheme” and blamed the Biden Administration for pursuing “open border policies and lax immigration enforcement” and sending minors who are “poorly vetted.”

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As a result, “DCF can no longer participate in or otherwise facilitate this highly flawed federal program until significant changes are made in federal immigration enforcement,” the letter stated.
A spokesperson with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sent us the following statement:

“It is our legal responsibility to safely care for unaccompanied children. As part of the unification process with a vetted sponsor, our Office of Refugee Resettlement facilitates travel for the children in its custody to vetted sponsors across the country. HHS is currently examining all the legal options available at its disposal to ensure that our shelters continue to provide services to the unaccompanied minors in our care. We will take every step needed to support our partners and ensure that the children under our care are in a safe and secure environment.” 

Melissa Marantes is Executive Director for the Orlando Center for Justice, which represents immigrants including unaccompanied children.

When asked if what the Governor and DCF are doing to Florida providers is legal, Marantes responded “that’s going to be the big question in front of us, is it permissible,” she said.

Marantes also said any legal fights that may proceed over the ongoing feud could vary.

“You have federal law you have state law and federal superseded state. You have the division of church and state, you’re talking about constitutional issues. You’re talking about children’s rights, so all of it will come into play It’s just going to be a question of can they work it out, find a happy medium, or will this just go away,” she said.

Melissa Marantes is Executive Director for the Orlando Center for Justice.

Last summer Texas Governor Greg Abbot took similar measures against shelters housing unaccompanied children there. His administration reached a compromise and the unaccompanied minor program continues in the Lone Star State.

What happens in the Sunshine State remains to be seen. Jo-Ann Ortiz of Bethany Christian Services said they are waiting for their leadership to direct them on whether or not they should resume taking in unaccompanied kids, even if it defies the Governor’s orders.

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“I’m concerned about the safety of the children,” Ortiz said when asked if she was concerned about any repercussions should they start accepting kids again.
Today, the organization’s Orlando branch has just one unaccompanied child still living with a foster family and attending a day camp at an educational center operated by Bethany Christian.

“We have a center prepared to serve children, we have staff passionate about serving the children and here we are in the center with no children,” she said.

But Ortiz remains hopeful they will soon be accepting more children again and reuniting them with family just as the program was created to do.

“Let us live our faith and let us do our mission and our mission is to care for children and the families,” Ortiz said.

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