The Trump administration is scoping out possible sites in Central Florida for a permanent shelter to hold immigrant children detained at the southern border, a move that immediately generated opposition from Democratic lawmakers and activists.
An email from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sent to state lawmakers and mayors late Monday says the Office of Refugee Resettlement is searching for existing vacant properties in Central Florida, Virginia and Los Angeles to accommodate the surging influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the border.
“Due to the crisis on the southern border, ORR has seen a dramatic increase in referrals of (unaccompanied children) from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security this Fiscal Year and continues to operate in emergency influx mode,” the letter states. “The number of referrals is unpredictable.”
The letter states HHS wants to lease existing properties, then build them to state and federal standards for permanent shelters, with migrants moving in as early as the spring of 2020. The surge at the border is so great, the permanent shelters are needed to replace temporary ones in use today, it said.
The letter did not specify what part of Central Florida the agency was targeting.
Glen Casel, CEO of the nonprofit child-welfare agency Embrace Families, said he and other Central Florida children’s services providers were asked by HHS as long as six months ago whether they would be able to offer a facility for housing immigrant children and coordinate their placement in foster care.
“It was just not something that was a good fit for us,” Casel said, “but many in our provider network were interested, and I know they followed up. I think we all felt like we wanted to help those children, but it’s a political hot button, these are difficult cases and there are language and cultural barriers you have to overcome.”
The HHS letter describes the planned facility as a “permanent shelter,” which a congressional source said would be different from the detention camps for children in Homestead in South Florida and at the border. At least seven children have died in custody at such shelters or after being detained at the border, according to the ACLU.
Staffers for HHS would not answer questions regarding the specifics of the plan, including how much it would cost and how big the centers would be.
As of June, the Department of Homeland Security has referred more than 58,500 immigrant children to the refugee office, a more than 57 percent increase over 2018, the letter states.
U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, responded to the letter by saying, “It is a shame that it has come to this.”
“The Trump administration should be focused on reuniting these children with their families here in the United States,” Soto said. “We know they’ve been slowing down the asylum process, and we still can’t do spot inspections [of these facilities] as members of Congress.”
Some members of Congress have visited camps, but only with prior approval and under the supervision of DHS.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said she doesn’t want a permanent detention center placed in Central Florida, especially as long as the Trump administration denies at-will access to members of Congress.
“I’m very concerned because our district has already had two different rallies to close the camps, so the idea of any type of detention camp coming close to us I know is going to lead to a huge public outcry, and I want to ensure the public’s aware of this,” Eskamani said. “If we’re talking about opening a new camp … the money spent to do that – you could spend money on hiring more staff to get these kids into homes.”
Sister Ann Kendrick, an activist and spokesperson for Hope CommUnity Center in Apopka, which supports immigrant communities, called the idea “disgusting.”
“To build a permanent facility is an indication of what the long-term strategy will be,” Kendrick said. “It would be interesting to know who is going to own this facility. Is it the federal government or one of their contract relationships with the private prison industry, which is making a lot of money off this market of suffering immigrant people, especially children? Which is just wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis is aware of the plan to search for sites in Central Florida, but his spokeswoman, Helen Ferre, would not say whether he would welcome such a facility in the state.
“The federal government has indicated it is initiating an exploratory process,” Ferre said in an email. “If and when the federal government has a specific proposal for the state to consider, it will be addressed.”
The latest plan appears to contradict the statements of DeSantis and President Trump in May, when Trump quashed a short-lived proposal to move some migrants to South Florida.
At the time, DeSantis said he spoke to Trump, who “confirmed that he did not approve, nor would approve, sending immigrants who illegally cross the border, to Florida. It is not going to happen,” DeSantis posted on Twitter in May. Trump later confirmed that with a tweet of his own.
While the proposed facility would be specifically constructed to house migrant children, the federal government has contracted with nonprofits to convert existing facilities into shelters in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Migrant children have been sent to His House Children’s Home in Miami Gardens and Catholic Charities’ Children’s Village in Cutler Bay, both in Miami-Dade County. As of three weeks ago, 37 girls between the ages of 13 to 17 were staying in a building in Lake Worth that was converted into a shelter.
The Lake Worth facility, which has a maximum capacity of 141, is called Rinconcito del Sol, which translates to “little corner of sunshine.”
U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Boca Raton, was given a supervised tour of the Lake Worth facility on July 10, calling it “very spacious, very welcoming,” and said it was much better than the Homestead camp where more than 2,500 migrant teenagers were being held.
Lawyers who have sued the federal government described the facility in Homestead as “prison-like.”
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