Will another detention center for migrant kids rise in Florida?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services finally unveiled its evacuation plan for the Homestead migrant shelter to several members of Congress and some Miami-Dade officials this week. Children would be flown out before a hurricane hit.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services finally unveiled its evacuation plan for the Homestead migrant shelter to several members of Congress and some Miami-Dade officials this week. Children would be flown out before a hurricane hit. Miami Herald Staff

The federal government is considering Central Florida as a site for future permanent shelters to hold unaccompanied migrant children, according to a letter emailed late Monday to several Orlando-area state lawmakers.

The content of the letter was confirmed by U.S. Health and Human Services to the Herald/Times. The agency currently runs three facilities in Miami-Dade County for kids who crossed the southern border without their biological parents — the Homestead detention center and two others in Miami Gardens and Cutler Bay.

The letter states that the Department of Health and Human Services is conducting “exploratory assessments” of “vacant properties” in Central Florida, as well as Virginia and Los Angeles after this fiscal year, and that the agency would ultimately care for the largest number of unaccompanied children “in the program’s history.”

The letter also said officials are scoping out areas with “minimal natural disaster risk, close to services/support infrastructure and near where large numbers of sponsors already live.”

Shortly after the emails were sent late Monday afternoon, they were already causing statewide confusion. At least four lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, from both the state House and Senate, received the message, all from Central Florida districts.

“When I got it I immediately called [Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer’s] office and [Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings’] office and they had not seen this and they asked me to forward it to them,” said Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando. “I do think that it’ll make the news today but where it goes from there, I don’t know.”

Stewart added that the entire process seemed highly disorganized, and that she’s opposed to the idea of a new facility. “We’re separating children from families and I just don’t think central Florida wants to be a part of that,” she said.

The other Orlando lawmakers who confirmed receiving the email were Rep. Rene Plasencia, Rep. Anna Eskamani and Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith.

Several lawmakers from both the Tampa Bay area and South Florida said they did not receive the email — nor did House Speaker José Oliva, who hails from Miami Lakes.

The disarray was reminiscent of earlier this summer, when Gov. Ron DeSantis was blindsided by news reports about local officials receiving communications from U.S. Customs and Border Protection saying that the federal government was considering sending 1,000 undocumented immigrants per month to Broward and Palm Beach counties, both Democratic strongholds.

But within days, DeSantis tweeted that he had spoken to President Donald Trump, who told him that “he did not approve, nor would approve, sending immigrants who illegally cross the border, to Florida. It is not going to happen.”

This time, at least, DeSantis appeared to have had notice of the message from the Trump administration. Helen Aguirre Ferré, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, said the governor’s office is “aware of the federal government’s exploratory assessment.”

“If and when it has a specific proposal for the state to consider, it will be reviewed at that time,” she said. Ferré did not say whether DeSantis supported the idea of opening a new facility in Florida.

But the news that the agency is looking at Florida, California and Virginia to have permanent detention centers for migrant children came as a surprise to many.

Just weeks ago, HHS told the Miami Herald that the agency was only looking at Atlanta, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix to stand up permanent state-licensed shelters. HHS would not disclose when the agency made the decision to look elsewhere.

Last month, HHS said the goal for the permanent facilities would be to house 500 children or fewer each.

Whether or not Caliburn, the company that runs the Homestead detention center, would be running the future shelters is still unclear.

When the Herald asked Caliburn for comment, it deferred questions to HHS, which responded: “We have no additional information to provide at this time.”

Monique O. Madan covers immigration and enterprise; she previously covered breaking news and local government. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald and The Dallas Morning News. She is currently a Reveal Fellow at the Center for Investigative Reporting. She graduated from Miami Dade College and Emerson College in Boston. A note to tipsters: If you want to send Monique confidential information, her email and mailbox are open. The address is 3511 NW 91st Ave, Doral, FL 33172. You can also direct message her on social media and she’ll provide encrypted Signal details.