ORLANDO, Fla. — Central Florida is one of three sites that the Trump administration is looking at to permanently house unaccompanied migrant children, according to federal officials.

  • Feds: Permanent shelters will reduce need for temporary shelters in future
  • Gov. Ron DeSantis' office says he’s aware of the exploratory plan
  • State Democratic leaders say it’s a bad plan for children, Central Florida

In a letter to Florida state legislators and other Central Florida leaders, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said Virginia, Los Angeles, and Central Florida are the locations under consideration for a state-licensed permanent shelter for the children.

"The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in HHS' Administration for Children and Families is conducting exploratory assessments of vacant properties in Virginia, Central Florida, and Los Angeles to lease for potential future use as state-licensed permanent shelter locations for unaccompanied alien children (UAC)," the department's letter said.

Government officials said they must search for permanent shelters to reduce the need for temporary influx shelters in the future. A former HHS official told Spectrum News that new shelters are needed to avoid keeping unaccompanied children in holding facilities at the border for long periods of time, where conditions have been poor.

"HHS runs out of space in its permanent shelters and licensed shelters because it will take some number of months to get a license," said Mark Greenberg of the Migration Policy Institute.

Greenberg worked at the Administration for Children and Families in HHS from 2009-2017 and directly oversaw the resettlement of unaccompanied children. 

"What HHS does is it turns to setting up facilities that are on federal property, (and) because they are on federal property, they are not subject to state licensing and monitoring," Greenberg added.

The Department of Homeland Security has apprehended almost 60,000 children — including thousands at a camp in South Florida — as it battles what it calls an illegal immigration crisis at the border. It said that number is an increase of more than 57 percent compared with the same time last year.

Sources say HHS officials are looking to house as many as 20,000 children in permanent shelters across the country, which are subject to state licensing and monitoring. Four children are limited to a room, and they typically have better conditions compared with other facilities such as the one in Homestead, Florida, the only unlicensed for-profit shelter for migrant children that holds thousands.

For the facility to begin operating, it would have to be licensed by Florida authorities, and according to former HHS officials, it appears the process of identifying the location and having local consultations has begun. 

"They will be going through a process of both identifying possible places, and then having local consultations to let people know about them. There has been a commitment both in the last administration, and it looks like it is continuing in this one, to let local officials know this so they can be aware of this, and they're not caught by surprise," Greenberg said.

Greenberg admits that although the facilities are intended to house unaccompanied children who arrive at the border without a parent or guardian who is able to care for them, that isn’t always how things pan out.  

“When the administration has engaged in separating parents and children through its family separation efforts, the children will be sent to the ORR shelter facilities,” he said. 

“Most of the kids in shelters really did arrive unaccompanied, but some number of them may be children who have been separated from their parents,” he said. 

Greenberg said HHS officials are looking at Florida because many parents, relatives, or family friends of unaccompanied children at the border reside in Florida.

A spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis said he's aware of the letter and reiterated his call for immigration reforms.

"The Governor’s office is aware of the federal government’s exploratory assessment of vacant properties in Central Florida available for lease for the potential future use as state licensed permanent location for unaccompanied minors lacking lawful legal status," the Governor's Office said. "Governor DeSantis has spoken about the crisis on our southern border numerous times and the need for Congress to vote for a permanent solution to the problem of illegal immigration."

Central Florida Democratic leaders were quick to criticize plans to possibly open up a shelter in their area. Many Democrats have criticized the lack of transparency at other migrant shelters across the country.

"Even the idea of scoping out a location in Central Florida causes alarm for all of us," said Florida Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando). "As a state lawmaker I can visit state prisons unannounced, and I’ve been doing that this summer. There is absolutely no ability to do that with these federal, profit-driven detention camps, so that alone causes us fear."

"I think it’s pretty clear that in our region, there’s a public outcry at what’s happening in our detention centers, and (there's) a huge cry from everyday people that they don’t want this in our backyard," Eskamani said.