Florida grand jury focused on unaccompanied migrant children, blasts feds in new report

Tribune Content Agency

MIAMI — In a stunning report that may spark new hostilities between the Biden Administration and Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida’s statewide prosecutor Thursday explicitly accused federal immigration authorities of “human trafficking” in their oversight of unaccompanied migrant children in the state.

The Statewide Prosecutors’ Office released an acerbic, 46-page grand jury report that denounces the federal Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), for leaving vulnerable migrant children with unvetted caregivers, or “sponsors” — and then abdicating all oversight of their welfare. The report suggests the policy amounts to criminal child neglect.

The Statewide Grand Jury, which is an arm of Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office, also accuses the federal government of covering up its alleged misdeeds.

“The public is led to believe that the process described by our federal government in documents and popular media accounts at least resembled the truth,” the report said. “ORR asserts that children fleeing from danger are adequately identified, properly cared for, and reunited with their family here in this country.

“In reality, ORR is facilitating the forced migration, sale, and abuse of foreign children, and some of our fellow Florida residents are (in some cases unwittingly) funding and incentivizing it for primarily economic reasons.”

Like the governor, Moody has been a strong critic of federal immigration policy. In March, a federal judge — ruling in a case filed by Moody’s office — ordered the Biden Administration to vacate and review a policy that has granted parole to tens of thousands of undocumented migrants.

The grand jury report, called a presentment, which was supervised by Statewide Prosecutor Nick Cox, is the latest salvo in a long-ranging dispute between DeSantis and other statewide leaders and federal immigration administrators over the custody and care of mostly Central and South American children who cross the Southern border without any family or adult supervision.

In recent months, hundreds of unaccompanied Cuban children have crossed the Southern border seeking residence here, as well.

More than 13,000 children sent to Florida

Last budget year, the report said, the U.S. Border Patrol took custody of 127,447 unaccompanied migrant children — a nearly five-fold increase from the number of such children in 2015. Of those, 13,195 were released to sponsors in Florida.

In December, DeSantis ordered state child welfare administrators to cease issuing or renewing licenses to facilities that shelter migrant children under contract with the federal government — a move that shelter operators warned might force them to relocate thousands of children. The order left in place existing licenses.

DeSantis asked the state Supreme Court to empanel a statewide grand jury to investigate undocumented migrants last June.

“The purpose of the grand jury will be to investigate individuals and organizations that are actively working with foreign nationals, drug cartels and coyotes to illegally smuggle minors, some as young as 2 years old, across the border and into Florida,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Pensacola.

Attacking the Biden Administration’s record on border security has been a staple of the GOP’s national strategy, and DeSantis, who is expected to be a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, has called the Democratic president’s border policies an “abject failure.”

By “incentivizing” illegal migration, the grand jury wrote, the Biden Administration has encouraged children “to undertake and/or be subjected to a harrowing trek to our border, ultimately abandoning significant numbers of those who survive the journey to an uncertain fate with persons who are largely unvetted.

“This process exposes children to horrifying health conditions, constant criminal threat, labor and sex trafficking, robbery, rape, and other experiences not done justice by mere words,” grand jurors added.

The report decries the state’s inability to exercise influence over immigration policy, which is the sole province of the federal government, but suggests the state “can and should regulate those living among us who seek out the responsibility of raising a child not their own.”

Grand jury makes recommendations

The presentment issues a series of recommendations, though they are likely to draw little resistance from a Legislature, currently in session, that enjoys a GOP super majority and has evidenced an immense loyalty to DeSantis, whose two terms as governor have seen a dramatic increase in Republican clout.

Among the recommendations:

— Requiring shelters and sponsors to report all unaccompanied children living in the state to child welfare authorities, and to initiate legal proceedings to determine legal custody of the youngsters. Failure to do so would be a felony offense, with investigation of such crimes spearheaded by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and prosecuted by the Office of Statewide Prosecution.

— Requiring organizations that place undocumented migrant children with a “purported biological parent” to document the relationship with either a birth certificate or DNA testing.

— Lawmakers should create new criminal penalties for harboring undocumented immigrants — a recommendation that the Republican-led Legislature is considering this year with the backing of the governor.

In addition to the grand jury’s recommendation, the legislative proposal seeks to increase penalties for businesses that hire undocumented workers, would require law enforcement agencies to collect DNA samples from migrants who are in detention facilities, and would require hospitals to collect data on whether patients are undocumented.

The proposal is moving slowly in the Legislature, but it is expected to gain traction in the coming weeks, even as religious groups say the legislative proposal would be an attack on their “religious freedom” as it would affect the services they offer to migrants.

Bryan Griffin, the governor’s press secretary, said this about the grand jury’s work back in December: “We appreciate and continue to monitor the work of the Twenty-First Statewide Grand Jury, and we expect more presentments to be issued in the future. We concur that the statutory language on human smuggling needs to be updated to be much stronger and therefore a greater deterrent to this criminal activity. We look forward to additional recommendations from the Grand Jury.”

“The governor is committed to acting within his authority to counteract Biden’s border crisis and reducing the burden of the administration’s neglect of duty at the border on the people of Florida,” he added.