Orange County Convention Center won’t be used to house unaccompanied migrant children

Mayor says FEMA considered site

Orange County Convention Center
Orange County Convention Center (Nadeen Yanes, News 6)

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – The Orange County Convention Center was considered as a potential location to provide shelter for unaccompanied migrant children but because the site is so busy, that won’t be happening.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said in a statement that FEMA approached local leaders about using the convention center as a way to “decompress the situation at the border” and provide children with a housing arrangement that didn’t feel like a detention center environment.

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Demings said FEMA contacted his office on Friday to see if up to 5,000 children could be housed locally in as much as 300,000 square feet of space.

“County staff provided a tour of the Convention Center and space availability. However, due to existing commitments, the Convention Center could not provide the space for the requested period of time and the federal government decided not to pursue the option any further,” the statement from Demings read.

The Orange County Convention Center closed for several months last year due to the coronavirus pandemic but started hosting major events again in July 2020. Since then, dozens of shows have relocated to Central Florida and the convention center has a busy schedule through the summer.

Demings said there were other concerns as well.

“What we were told was that they were looking to house 500 or more workers in our local hotels, so economically it may have been a good economic opportunity, but by the same token, whenever you’re talking about immigration and the issues related to the children it’s a very controversial issue and one the government has to wrestle with on how they’re going to deal with that dilemma,” he said.

In August 2019, the Office of Refugee Resettlement was considering a vacant property on Landstreet Road in Orlando, near the Florida Mall, to be used to shelter unaccompanied migrant children.

Local leaders at the time, including Demings, were vocal about not wanting such a facility in Orlando, adding that the property would need to be rezoned from commercial use to housing use and that was unlikely to happen due to the opposition.

About a month later, the ORR said Central Florida was no longer under consideration for the facility. In that same letter, the ORR said that there were 5,400 unaccompanied migrant children in its care spread out across 120 facilities in 23 states.

The Biden administration for the first time Tuesday allowed journalists inside its main border detention facility for migrant children, revealing a severely overcrowded tent structure where more than 4,000 people, including children and families, were crammed into a space intended for 250 and the youngest were kept in a large play pen with mats on the floor for sleeping, the Associated Press reports.

The Biden administration has continued expelling adults who try to cross the border under a coronavirus-related public health declaration enacted by former President Donald Trump. President Joe Biden also has tried to expel most families traveling together, but changes in Mexican law have forced agents to release many parents and children into the U.S.

Biden has declined to resume the Trump-era practice of expelling unaccompanied immigrant children. Several hundred kids and teenagers are crossing the border daily, most fleeing violence, poverty or the effects of natural disasters in Central America. In some cases, parents refused entry into the U.S. have sent their children across the border alone, hoping they will be placed with relatives eventually.

The Border Patrol is apprehending far more children daily than Health and Human Services is placing with U.S. sponsors, leading to a severe backlog in the system. The Border Patrol generally is not supposed to detain children for more than three days, but Health and Human Services lacks space.

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