Faith, business leaders blast DeSantis immigration moves

Published: February 11, 2022 11:20 AM EST
Updated: February 11, 2022 11:35 AM EST
Gov. Ron DeSantis announces plans to introduce W.O.K.E. Act.

Decrying it as cruel and mean-spirited, Catholic leaders, business owners and Cuban-American emigrés on Thursday castigated Gov. Ron DeSantis for shutting down shelters that provide housing and other resources for unaccompanied immigrant children.

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

The Department of Children and Families on Thursday rolled out a proposed rule to carry out the order, days after DeSantis held a news conference 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, used the event to blast 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 Monday.

But on Thursday, Catholic Archbishop Thomas 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 news conference at the Archdiocese of Miami’s pastoral center.

Illegal immigration has long been a lightning-rod political issue, with former President Donald Trump making the issue a cornerstone of his four-year tenure in office. DeSantis also has taken a hardline stance on the issue.

The governor and Attorney General Ashley Moody have criticized the Biden administration over immigration policies for months and have filed lawsuits against the federal government and sent Florida law-enforcement officers to help at the border of Texas and Mexico.

The Department of Children and Families’ rollout of the proposed rule came as the Republican-controlled Legislature has started moving forward with bills (SB 1808 and HB 1355) that would again wade into the issue of so-called “sanctuary cities” and crackdown on transportation companies that bring undocumented immigrants into the state.

South Florida health care executive Mike Fernandez, a former Republican who left the GOP because of its stance on illegal immigration, lashed out at DeSantis’ decision to shut down the shelters, calling the move and the proposed legislation cruel.

“And those promoting it should be embarrassed by this crusade which they have totally embraced,” Fernandez, co-chairman of the American Business Immigrant Coalition, said. “Governor, it is shameful for you to surround yourself with a few supporters … and claim that Cuban children that fled Cuba decades ago are any better than children arriving today from Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador and many other countries. I assure you that these children are not inferior in any way.”

Fernandez and others denounced DeSantis’ use of the word “disgusting” to differentiate the Pedro Pan children from today’s refugees and called on the governor to reverse his executive order.

“Well, let me tell you what I think is disgusting: a proposed, heartless policy towards immigrant children, defenseless and vulnerable. It’s simply repugnant,” Fernandez said. “Enough is enough. Children should not be part of a politician’s political tool.”

Asked to respond to Thursday’s criticism, DeSantis’ communications director Taryn Fenske defended the governor.

“It is not a safe policy to incentivize unaccompanied minor children to take unsafe and treacherous voyages, sometimes across multiple countries with threats of smuggling, trafficking, sex trafficking and drug cartels — we value children so much that we don’t want that to happen,” Fenske said in an email.

But Eduardo Padrón, a former president of Miami Dade College who came to the U.S. as a child as part of the Pedro Pan operation, said “the policies being considered in Tallahassee today are ill-advised and totally misguided.”

Canceling the shelters’ licenses “should never happen in America,” Padrón said.

“It is our moral duty to protect these children. They have already endured enough suffering,” he added.

Peter Routsis-Arroyo, CEO of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Miami, said his organization is committed to “providing a safe and nurturing environment” to unaccompanied children.

Routsis-Arroyo said more than 85 percent of the children served by his agency eventually are reunited with family members, many of them in Florida.

“Our license will soon expire, and unless it’s renewed, unless there’s some sort of understanding between the governor’s office and the feds, it’s possible that we will no longer be able to carry out our mission,” he said.

Many of the unaccompanied children coming into the U.S. are from countries plagued by gang violence and poverty, such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Tony Argiz, who came to the U.S. as a Pedro Pan participant at age 9 and who was housed at a Catholic boarding school in Tampa, said the parents of children arriving in the country today “are just like my parents. They simply want their children to be safe and live free in a free democracy.”

In a phone interview, the Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, said shelters are used to temporarily house children who’ve entered the country without guardians. The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement places the children at shelters throughout the country, with the goal of reconnecting them with their families.

The shelters “perform necessary humanitarian services for children, for children who are being called all kinds of things and being blamed for their situation,” Meyer said.

“I don’t know how you can blame a child for being a refugee,” he said.

DeSantis’ shelter decision is a way for the governor to try to control immigration policy, which is a federal responsibility, Meyer said. He said he expects the Biden administration to adjust its rules for the shelters.

“They’ve got to do something with these children. They’ve got to reconnect them with their families. They have a moral duty to do that,” Meyer said.

It’s unclear how many shelters and how many children the proposed shelter rule will affect, Meyer said.

“Because of the politicization of this issue, that kind of data has not been easy to come up with,” he explained. “I can tell you, various agencies have had to hide their shelters because, at various times, they’ve been subjected to attacks, to protests showing up outside their doors.”