(CNN) An ongoing feud over President Joe Biden's immigration policies is escalating in Florida where Gov. Ron DeSantis is threatening to keep long-standing shelters from caring for migrant children, culminating in a heated back and forth unfolding in internal correspondence obtained by CNN.
The Republican governor's office and the Biden administration are sparring over whether migrant children who arrive at the US-Mexico border alone should be cared for by shelters in Florida, as they have been since 2005. The children, who are in government custody, stay at shelters until they can be reunited with a vetted sponsor, like a parent or relative, in the United States.
But in a letter sent to the Health and Human Services Department last week, obtained by CNN, Florida's general counsel, Ryan Newman, alleged the federal government was participating in a "human trafficking scheme." HHS, which is responsible for the care of migrant children, said DeSantis' threat to revoke state licenses from shelters that take these migrants raises "serious legal concerns" and threatened to take the matter to the Justice Department.
The spat pits DeSantis, a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate, up against the Biden administration with migrant children in the middle, as evidenced in the leaked documents.
In December, the DeSantis administration issued an emergency rule that would strip shelters caring for migrant minors in Florida of state licensing, and therefore oversight, if they accept new placements from the border, potentially affecting hundreds of children.
Unaccompanied migrant children have become a target for other GOP governors as well, following a surge of minors at the US southern border last year. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who's running for reelection and is a vocal critic of Biden, stripped his state shelters of licenses last year, leaving providers to operate without state oversight and largely without sufficient guardrails in the event something happened. And in Pennsylvania, Republican gubernatorial candidate Lou Barletta has cited flights carrying children to the state for care from the border in his criticism of the Biden administration.
For years, minors largely from Central America have journeyed to the US-Mexico border seeking refuge -- often vexing officials in the Obama and Trump administrations. But the issue has taken on new life as Republicans try to elevate immigration and what they describe as poor management of the US-Mexico border ahead of the midterm elections, particularly as Biden's polling numbers sag.
"Historically, when we've talked about children, there's been nonpartisan agreement that children deserve protection," said Lisette Burton, chief policy and practice adviser at the Association of Children's Residential & Community services. "I haven't seen before a time where really vulnerable children have been put at the center of political arguments in this way."
With potentially hundreds of kids on the line, DeSantis' actions are fueling concern among shelter providers in the state and within the HHS, where Secretary Xavier Becerra has been briefed on the issue, according to an HHS official.
"It is our legal responsibility to safely care for unaccompanied children," an HHS spokesperson told CNN in a statement. "HHS is currently examining all the legal options available at its disposal to ensure that our shelters continue to provide services to the unaccompanied minors in our care. We will take every step needed to support our partners and ensure that the children under our care are in a safe and secure environment."
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency within HHS, funds shelters, which are licensed by states. There are exceptions for overflow facilities, which are leased by the federal government often for a temporary period to address surges in migrant arrivals and don't require state licensing.
"Federal policies that incentivize the trafficking of (unaccompanied children) are not only a burden on states but are also dangerous for the unaccompanied minors," Florida's letter, dated January 26, reads.
"Under the emergency rule, DCF has no obligation to enter into any cooperative agreement with the federal government, and it does not intend to do so unless the Federal Government restores the immigration enforcement policies of the prior administration or implements similar such policies," the letter reads, referring to the December rule from the state's Department of Children and Families. The rule stems from an executive order signed by DeSantis in September that directed the department to determine whether resettlement of children in the state was necessary.
CNN reached out to the Florida governor's office for clarification about what specific policies the state wants to see the Biden administration implement.
Florida's January letter was in response to correspondence from HHS in late December seeking clarification on the emergency rule. In that letter, HHS threatened to involve DOJ if the matter can't be resolve "amicably."
"Absent significant clarification, the approach reflected in the emergency rule raises serious legal concerns and if we cannot resolve this matter amicably, HHS will pursue all available options, including referring the matter to the Department of Justice, to ensure ORR remains able to fulfill its statutory duties for the vulnerable children that Congress has placed in its custody and care," the letter, dated December 23, from HHS Deputy General Counsel Mark Greenberg, reads.
US Customs and Border Protection is often the first agency to encounter an unaccompanied child arriving at the US-Mexico border. In December, CBP arrested nearly 12,000 unaccompanied minors, according to the latest available data. The federal agency then refers the children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is equipped to care for them.
ORR has a network of around 195 state-licensed beds at shelters nationwide. Licensed beds are preferred by officials and immigrant advocates over emergency sites -- many of which popped up last year to accommodate a record number of children -- because they offer wraparound services, like education and legal services, until a child is reunited with a sponsor, like a parent or relative.
"Licensure is the floor for quality," Burton said. Her association is made up of organizational members nationwide who provide services to children and families, including unaccompanied migrant minors.
Licensing requirements vary by state, but generally, they provide basic oversight and standards for care, like caregiver to children ratios. "Layers of oversight are important. There are regulations that ORR has for providers serving unaccompanied children and that's layered on top of state protections," Burton said.
Staff at shelters in Florida have been routinely meeting to discuss next steps and discern how the rule will affect operations, according to a source familiar with discussions.
"The letter from Governor DeSantis was very harmful for staff to read," said Nathan Bult, senior vice president of public and government affairs at Bethany Christian Services. "To dedicate your life and your career to something you truly believed in and to be accused of being the final link in the chain of a human trafficking scheme, even though these staff know that that's not true, it's still really hard to hear."
It's also raised concern among foster families, who care for unaccompanied minors, and fueled fear about licenses being revoked.
Thousands of children have been released to sponsors in Florida who have been thoroughly vetted, including more than 3,500 children from October 2020 to December 2021, according to HHS data. In fiscal year 2019, when there was an uptick in unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the US-Mexico border, around 7,400 unaccompanied children were released to sponsors in Florida, the data show.
Elected officials on both sides of the aisle have pushed back on opening new shelters in cities and states, but the latest actions by Texas and Florida go a step further in threatening to revoke licenses of shelters already caring for children.
"It is a risk for the providers. It's a political fight that's not taking into account what it means for the providers and the people who operate these shelters," another HHS official told CNN.
Last year, DeSantis accused the Biden administration of secretly flying migrants from the US-Mexico border to his state in the dead of night without notice, but similar transports occurred during the Trump era.
"At the end of the day, this isn't about immigration policy. This is about caring for children who are already here and that should be non-controversial. That should be nonpartisan," Bult said.