IMAGE COURTESY NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

Faith-based and immigrant-advocacy groups on Thursday urged Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration to scrap a proposed rule that would strip licenses of providers who offer shelter and other services to unaccompanied immigrant children.

The proposal would do away with state licenses for organizations that house unaccompanied minors for the federal government while the children’s refugee and immigration status is being processed, unless the DeSantis and Biden administrations reach an agreement.

The rule also would set up a process for providers to conduct welfare checks on children who have been released from shelters and reunified with family members or sponsors.

DeSantis has repeatedly criticized the Biden administration on immigration issues during the past year and has taken steps such as sending Florida law-enforcement officers to Texas to aid with border issues. The Florida Department of Children and Families held an online hearing Thursday about the proposed rule, taking questions from providers and advocates.

“The federal government’s immigration enforcement policies have incentivized the trafficking of unaccompanied alien children, leading to unsafe situations for the UAC (unaccompanied alien children) Floridians. Florida does not want to be complicit in those policies,” Danielle Thompson, a Department of Children and Families deputy general counsel, said.

But critics of the proposed rule argued, in part, that the state failed to demonstrate that unaccompanied immigrant children should be treated differently than other dependent children.

The rule is “arbitrary” and “impermissibly vague,” Jennifer Coberly, senior litigation attorney with the group Americans for Immigrant Justice, said.

“The statute as it exists does not allow for groups of children to be singled out without any kind of qualitative analysis that distinguishes them,” she said. “This would appear to be a case of disparate treatment and a lack of equal protection.”

DeSantis in January told the Biden administration that Florida “no longer wishes to be involved in the federal government’s UAC (unaccompanied alien children) resettlement program.”

The governor, widely viewed as a top Republican contender for president in 2024, directed the Department of Children and Families to stop issuing or renewing licenses to providers that shelter the children.

Evangelical leaders held a rally Thursday at the Capitol to decry the proposed rule and legislation (HB 1355 and SB 1808) that, in part, would target transportation companies that bring undocumented immigrants into Florida. Committees in the Republican-dominated House and Senate have supported the bills.

During Thursday’s rule hearing, critics repeatedly asked state officials for data showing that the changes are necessary.

“There is a limited number of child-caring facilities and foster homes that are able to care for children. DCF is prioritizing Florida citizens and other vulnerable Florida children who are in the state currently,” Thompson said.

But her answer drew pushback.

“As a pastor in the state of Florida, I don’t know how we could justify the language of prioritizing Florida children, because we see all people who are at risk, especially those who are most vulnerable, children,” said Joel Tooley, pastor of the First Church of the Nazarene in Melbourne.

Tooley also disputed that the proposed rule would ease pressure on the state’s child-welfare system, noting that many of the providers who care for unaccompanied migrant children do so because it is part of their mission as evangelicals.

“To imply to the public that this is reducing a burden on the Department of Children and Families is disingenuous, if not untruthful,” Tooley said.

The Department of Children and Families’ proposed rule would apply to 17 shelters and five “child-placing” agencies that received about $66 million in federal money last year for participating in the federal Unaccompanied Alien Children program, according to a DCF analysis of the proposal. Sixty foster homes in the state also participate in the program, and a total of 3,708 children were placed in the facilities last year, the analysis said. The providers are licensed by the state.

The proposed rule would result in an “egregious disparity of treatment” for unaccompanied children, Sylvia Smith-Torres, executive director of His House Children’s Home, told the DCF officials.

“We feel offended at the implication of involvement in human trafficking,” said Torres, whose organization received $8 million from the federal government last year and served more than 1,400 children, according to the DCF analysis.

The hearing came as lawyers for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and DeSantis continue to exchange salvos as the state moves forward with the proposed rule, which would expand on an emergency regulation issued by DeSantis in December.

On Tuesday, the Biden administration sent a letter to DeSantis’ general counsel saying state licenses aren’t required for shelter operators to continue receiving federal funds and that Florida does not have the authority to punish providers if their licenses lapse.

But immigration experts maintain that the shelters won’t be able to continue to operate without some sort of license or oversight.

Facilities that provide residential care to children typically are required to have licenses, Jane Liu, senior litigation attorney for the Young Center for Children’s Rights, told The News Service of Florida after Thursday’s meeting. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services appoints lawyers and social workers at Liu’s agency to serve as advocates for migrant children.

Liu said her agency is “very concerned” about stripping shelters’ licenses and about the welfare checks required in the proposed rule.

“What I learned from that hearing was that there was essentially a decision from the beginning that there was no evidence of need for the resettlement of unaccompanied children. There was a determination that was already made and there was really nothing that they are basing that determination on, other than that they made a political decision to target unaccompanied children in Florida,” she said.

Even more concerning, Liu said, was DCF officials’ comments that the state is distinguishing between children who aren’t U.S. citizens and those who are, a disclosure that took many of the meeting’s dozens of attendees by surprise.

“Not only is that discriminatory, but that’s also not supported by any state law in any way, shape or form,” Liu said.

Liu called policies such as the proposed rule — which mirrors actions taken by Texas — and the measures proposed to curtail transportation of unaccompanied children into the state “hateful and anti-child.”

“And then to say that you are doing this because you are concerned about the safety of children, it’s offensive. But unfortunately, I think it’s going to continue and get worse and it’s really to win political points,” she said.

Several experts expect the proposed rule will be challenged.

Anne Janet Hernandez Thompson, senior supervising attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, was among the lawyers who pressed state officials for details.

Florida policymakers don’t appear to have a grasp of the complexity of immigration laws, Hernandez Thompson told the News Service. She castigated state officials for using children to score political points.

“It’s very shameful, because these are children who are escaping wars, famine, abuse, so many horrendous situations, and to really focus in on them is heartless,” she said.

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