Biden administration shoots down DeSantis attempt to cut off care to migrant children

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to shut down centers assisting undocumented migrant children in Florida.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration formally told Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, that his administration's attempts to shut down federally funded shelters that are offering support to unaccompanied migrant children would not work.

The shelters, contracted by the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement, assist undocumented children seeking asylum before they are reunited with a sponsor, usually a relative.

Mark Greenberg, general counsel for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, sent a letter on Tuesday to Ryan Newman, DeSantis' general counsel. Greenberg wrote that, despite DeSantis' rhetoric and his actions against shelters and other organizations providing care, "Florida cannot take action against federal contractors for activities that are expressly authorized by federal law."

Greenberg said federal contractors "are exempt from any enforcement activity, including injunctive actions, civil administrative penalties, or criminal prosecution or penalties" related to their assistance for children, and he noted that DeSantis' counsel previously conceded the U.S. Constitution limits the ability of Florida to act against them.

Greenberg also noted a Jan. 26 letter from Newman in which the Florida counsel conceded that the Constitution limits Florida's ability "to prohibit through enforcement action activities of federal officers or agents, including federal contractors," which he said means the state can't punish the shelters beyond withholding their state licenses, which aren't required for federal funding, rendering the action essentially meaningless.

But while DeSantis' threats don't have teeth, he can use them to stir up his GOP base. As governor, DeSantis, now considered a likely presidential candidate in 2024, has routinely echoed former President Donald Trump's harsh rhetoric against immigrants and has targeted shelters helping migrants, even those operated by religious organizations.

And DeSantis frequently appears on conservative outlets, like Fox News, to tout his aggressive anti-immigration stances. Such appearances in the past have played a vital role in promoting conservative politicians seeking the Republican nomination for president. Trump's campaign to secure the nomination in 2016 was greatly assisted by appearing on Fox to tout the idea of a border wall, for example. DeSantis also likes to hold press conferences to promote his anti-immigration policies.

DeSantis' attacks on migrant care centers began in September 2021, when he directed the Florida Department of Children and Families to determine if the state should continue providing licenses to them.

One shelter, the Dream Center in Sarasota, Florida, in November had to relocate nearly 60 children in their care after the state failed to renew its license to house them. According to the center, half of the children affected were under 13.

Same Sipes, CEO of Lutheran Services who operates the center, told a local TV station at the time, "It's very sad and these 50+ children were traumatized again because they had to move in a hurry because we couldn’t get clarity about our license status."

That same month, members of the American Academy of Pediatrics called on DeSantis to rescind the order, arguing that it harms the wellbeing of children.

In December, DeSantis ordered that regulators stop renewing or issuing licenses to centers that have been taking care of unaccompanied minors.

Arguing in favor of his stance in a February news conference, DeSantis alleged that the process used by the Biden administration "smuggles in illegal immigrants from many different countries with no vetting, no transparency, and no consideration for child and public safety."

This claim was rated "mostly false" by PolitiFact, who noted that the Customs and Border Protection agency does gather biometric information from immigrant children, along with fingerprints and birth certificates, which are used to uncover possible criminal histories.

Faith leaders have also spoken out against DeSantis' policy, including the Archbishop of Miami, Thomas Wenski.

In an op-ed published on Tuesday written by Rev. Jose Rodriguez and a coalition of Latino community leaders, DeSantis was asked to keep the centers open.

"We have a duty of care to protect children. The child at the border misses and yearns for their mother and father, cries, hurts, is afraid, and needs rescue and protection in the same way that the children that came here from Cuba in the 1960s," the letter read.

The reference was to a Cold War program called Operation Peter Pan that involved the airlift of 14,000 unaccompanied children from Cuba's communist regime to Florida, where they were cared for by charitable organizations.

The Florida government has still scheduled a public hearing on Thursday to consider DeSantis' rule.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.