FLORIDA — A controversial proposed new state rule aimed at stopping nonprofit organizations in Florida from housing unaccompanied migrant children for the federal government is expected to cost these groups millions
For the nonprofit organizations who do this work, it's simply part of their mission.
"We provide healing and hope to children and families in need," explained Sam Sipes in November.
Sipes is CEO of Lutheran Services of Florida, a nonprofit that serves, among others, unaccompanied children who enter the U.S. without their parents.
"This is a calling," explained Jo-Ann Ortiz of Bethany Christian Services in Winter Garden.
Bethany Christian Services is among five foster care agencies in Florida that connect unaccompanied youths with foster families while they wait to be reunited with family or vetted sponsors in the U.S.
Both are among the more than a dozen faith-based, nonprofit organizations in Florida that help house unaccompanied migrant children for the federal government.
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"We love God and serve our neighbors. We live by that rule," explained Ortiz.
The program to house unaccompanied youth is fully funded through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) Program.
For decades, ORR has provided temporary care and shelter to children who cross the border into the U.S. without their parents.
It's part of a federal law obligating the U.S. government to provide proper care to children who arrive here without their parents. In many cases, children are escaping violence and threats in their own countries.
But if lawmakers approve a proposed new rule to deny state licenses to these providers, these groups' faith-based missions to help this population will be tougher to carry out.
The rule directs DCF staff not to renew the licenses of these federally funded providers until the federal government agrees to enter into immigrant resettlement agreements with the state.
"We're caught in the middle the same way our children are caught in the middle," explained Ortiz about the rule proposed by Florida's Department of Children and Families (DCF) as part of the governor's crackdown on illegal immigration into the state.
Now, new documents obtained from DCF, show just how much the state's actions could cost these organizations.
According to a costs analysis by DCF, which created the rule and would be tasked with enforcing it, if it's approved by the Legislature, 17 shelters, five foster agencies and approximately 60 foster families in Florida who currently provide temporary housing to unaccompanied migrant children for the federal government, will lose all the federal money it gets to care for these children.
According to the state's analysis, that totals more than $66 million.
But according to the rule, DCF would still require providers to conduct in-person welfare checks on any unaccompanied child the U.S. government sends into the state as part of the ORR program.
Between travel and lodging, DCF estimates those costs could reach nearly $2 million within the first six months the rule is implemented. It goes on to estimate costs of nearly $17 million over five years, depending on the child's age.
"I don't know where that money would come from to do those checks," said Lisette Burton, chief policy and practice officer for the Association of Children's Residential and Community Services (ACRC).
The association works with some of these ORR providers in Florida.
Burton believes the state's estimates of costs are on the low end and questions why Florida's top child welfare agency would propose a rule that shifts the burden of costs from the federal government to these nonprofits or, possibly, Florida taxpayers.
"These nonprofit providers would have to come up with these dollars from somewhere to do this work. Or, its something the Legislature would have to agree to fund through tax-payer dollars. It doesn't make much sense because right now this is a program that is entirely funded through federal dollars," Burton explained about the federal ORR program, which has been in existence for decades.
According to DCF's analysis, last year the federal ORR program provided care to more than 4,000 unaccompanied migrant children in Florida. The program also provides jobs for nearly 700 people in Florida, according to the state.
But if the rule is approved, Burton said some of these providers could close their shelters or end their foster care programs.
"We are talking about hundreds and hundreds of people who would be unemployed," said Burton.
While the proposed rule is part of a broader, more aggressive effort by Gov. Ron DeSantis to stop illegal immigration into the state and what he calls is a "human trafficking scheme" by the feds, the rule's impact has caused months of controversies and debates.
Immigrant advocates and shelter providers have consistently voiced opposition to the rule, which stemmed from an anti-immigration executive order signed by the governor in September.
Providers fear cracking down on their organizations and the children they serve will cost everyone involved much more than money.
"Let us live our faith and let us do our mission. Our mission is to care for children and the families," Ortiz said.