ORLANDO, Fla. – Central Florida may house unaccompanied migrant children due to an influx of children being apprehended by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at the U.S. border, according to a letter sent Monday to Florida state lawmakers and mayors from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
According to the letter, the Office of Refugee Resettlement is considering vacant properties in Virginia, Central Florida and Los Angeles to lease for permanent shelter locations for unaccompanied migrant children.
"Due to the crisis on the southern border, ORR has seen a dramatic increase in referrals of (unaccompanied alien children) from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security this fiscal year and continues to operate in emergency influx mode," according to the letter. "As of June 2019, DHS has referred over 58,500 (unaccompanied alien children) to ORR, an increase of over 57 percent from the same time period in FY 2018."
The ORR defines "unaccompanied alien children" as children under 18 years old who have no lawful immigration status in the U.S., without a parent or legal guardian in the U.S. or a parent or legal guardian in the U.S. available to provide care and physical custody, according to the letter.
This fiscal year, ORR will care for the largest number of migrant children in the program's history, according to the letter.
ORR Director Jonathan Hayes told CBS News in an interview recently that an unprecedented number of unaccompanied migrant children are at risk of spending the rest of their childhoods in federal custody.
"Unfortunately, I have well over 4,000 of those children in my care at this time at the Office of Refugee Resettlement," Hayes told CBS News in June. "So, conceivably, someone could come into our care at 15 years old and not have an identifiable sponsor in the United States and remain with us for a few years."
Children who age out of the ORR youth holding facilities on their 18th birthdays may be taken to adult U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers.
Currently, the ORR has 170 facilities in 23 states, according to the letter. As of July 22, 10,000 children who were detained at the southern border are in the care of the Department of Homeland Security, according to the Unaccompanied Alien Children Program fact sheet.
"We are committed to further reducing length of care, to deal with capacity issues, in ways that do not jeopardize the safety or welfare of the children," the letter said.
[Fact sheet: Unaccompanied Alien Children Program ]
The letter did not specify what vacant properties the ORR is considering in Central Florida or other states. Earlier this year, however, the Department of Homeland Security began working to obtain 16-month leases for permanent shelters throughout the U.S. that would begin in spring 2020.
Helen Ferré, the communications director for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, released this statement in response to a migrant children camp possibly being located in Central Florida:
“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," Ferré said. "Gov. 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.”
According to the letter, the ORR will lease the properties, "build them out to meet state licensure requirements and bring in a service provider to operate them according to state licensure requirements and ORR policy and procedures."
The letter did not state what cities or counties in Central Florida the ORR is considering. On Monday night, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer received the same email which was addressed to Florida mayors but it did not provide the city with any details, a city spokesperson said.
"By the federal government taking on the leases and build out, we believe it will expand the number of grantees who would be willing to step forward and care for this population," according to the letter.
Democratic Florida and U.S. representatives said the children should be reunited with their families instead of remaining in U.S. custody.
U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Florida, said it's a shame that it has come to opening more shelters instead of reuniting children with their families.
“President Trump has separated children from their families, slowed down the court process and put up barriers for congressional oversight," Soto said. "His administration has also senselessly cut off key foreign aid to countries of origin for these child refugees like Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, that Congress has already appropriated. These actions have all fueled the humanitarian crisis at the border."
Soto, however, added that, if Central Florida does host a new detention center, "then we must have humanitarian standards and unannounced congressional inspections to ensure proper treatment.”
Florida Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, was among the Florida representatives who received the letter Monday and shared a copy with News 6.
"We should be closing camps, not opening new ones," Eskamani said in a tweet.
When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families replied to News 6 with a copy of the letter sent to lawmakers.