TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - As Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration moves forward with trying to shut down shelters that provide housing and other services for unaccompanied immigrant children, the stripping of licenses might be more rhetorical than effective, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Biden administration sent a letter Tuesday to DeSantis' general counsel, Ryan Newman, saying that state licenses aren't required for shelter operators to continue receiving federal funds.
And the state does not have the authority to punish the providers if their licenses lapse and they continue to offer services to unaccompanied immigrant children, Mark Greenberg, a deputy general counsel at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, wrote to Newman.
Currently, 17 shelters provide housing and other services, such as medical care and education, to children who arrive in the country without parents.
The children are placed in shelters by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement while their immigration status is being processed.
The Florida shelters received about $66 million in federal funds last year, according to documents provided by the state Department of Children and Families.
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 unaccompanied immigrant children.
The agency is holding a public hearing on the rule Thursday.
The issue of unaccompanied immigrant children has become one of the 2022 legislative session's most contentious topics, as some faith and business leaders align with immigrant-advocacy groups to oppose the hardline approach taken by DeSantis and other GOP leaders.
In Tuesday's letter to Newman, Greenberg said that, under the U.S. Constitution's Supremacy Clause, "Florida cannot take action against federal contractors for activities that are expressly authorized by federal law."
"When ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement) grantees accept a placement of unaccompanied non-citizen children, the provision of care to those children and other activities pursuant to cooperative agreements with ORR are activities expressly authorized by federal law in furtherance of ORR's statutorily mandated mission," Greenberg wrote.
Tuesday's letter was the latest in a series of salvos between the DeSantis and Biden administrations on the issue.
In a letter to Greenberg on Jan. 26, Newman acknowledged that the federal Constitution "limits a state's ability to prohibit through enforcement action activities of federal officers or agents, including federal contractors" that are authorized by federal law.
Greenberg pointed to that concession in Tuesday's missive, saying "we understand that Florida will not bring enforcement actions beyond suspension or revocation of a state license" held by the shelter providers.
The providers "are exempt from any enforcement activity, including injunctive actions, civil administrative penalties, or criminal prosecution or penalties" related to continuing to provide services to unaccompanied children, he wrote.
The letter also pointed out that the state is not allowed to "discriminate against the federal government and its contractors, including by treating them differently with respect to licensing than similarly situated parties, based solely on objections to federal policies."
Florida cannot "take any action against those grantees based on their activities on behalf of the federal government," Greenberg wrote.
"We will inform the ORR grantees of our understanding and instruct the ORR grantees to operate according to this understanding unless you inform us otherwise by March 4, 2022," Greenberg told Newman.
The letter might offer some assurance to Florida providers, but the issue is far from settled.
"If the state chooses not to license us and then the federal supremacy (clause) takes over and we're allowed to continue to operate, I don't see that it would present a problem for us in servicing the children," Peter Routsis-Arroyo, CEO of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Miami, told The News Service of Florida in a phone interview Wednesday.
Routsis-Arroyo said he hoped Tuesday's letter from HHS resolved the matter, "but I'm not sure."
"Nobody's quite sure. I know there's still some sort of communication that is taking place. It remains to be seen," he said.
Catholic Charities' shelter is licensed by the state to house 81 children but, due to COVID-19, is home to about 50 children under age 18, Routsis-Arroyo said.
Florida congressional Democrats on Wednesday called on DeSantis to reconsider his stance.
Limiting the licensed shelter capacity for unaccompanied minors "is liable to result in more unaccompanied children being placed in unlicensed facilities, which have a poorer track record of providing safe and humane treatment," wrote U.S. House members Charlie Crist, Lois Frankel, Frederica Wilson, Kathy Castor, Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, Ted Deutch, Al Lawson, Darren Soto, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
"Endangering unaccompanied children's access to care from providers who are trained to ensure the safety and welfare of children in their custody and subject to rigorous oversight is needlessly cruel," the Democrats argued. "We urge you to consider rescinding these policies and work with us to uphold Florida's proud legacy of ensuring the safety, welfare, and dignity of all children."
DeSantis has used the issue of unaccompanied children to drum up support among his conservative base of supporters.
The governor held a news conference this month with Cuban-American supporters in Miami. DeSantis, who was joined by people who participated in the "Pedro Pan" operation that relocated more than 14,000 Cuban children to the U.S. in the 1960s, blasted President Joe Biden for what the governor called a "crisis" at the country's Mexican border.
"To equate what is going on in the Southern border … to Operation Pedro Pan is actually disgusting," DeSantis said on Feb. 7.
Catholic Archbishop Thomas Wenski days later held a news conference where he was joined by Pedro Pan participants who blasted DeSantis' approach.
Wenski called the governor's order and the Miami event "political theater" and "a new low in the zero-sum politics in our divisive times."
"Children are children, and no child should be deemed disgusting, especially by a public servant," Wenski said during a Feb. 10 news conference at the Archdiocese of Miami's pastoral center.
(©2022 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Dara Kam contributed to this report.)
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