Florida Gov. Rick Scott's administration expressed concern in a letter Friday about reports that the federal government planned to send unaccompanied immigrant children from the Southwest border to Miami this weekend, seeming to be unaware that it is a regular practice and asking for any health information the government had for the minors. The letter seemed unusual to immigration attorneys who say the practice has been going on for years.
In the letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Friday, state Health Secretary John Armstrong wrote: "The Florida Department of Health has received unconfirmed reports that the federal government is bringing unaccompanied minors from the border to Florida today."
In the last year, the number of Central American children crossing illegally into the United States from Mexico has skyrocketed, with more than 57,000 children — mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — arriving since Oct. 1.
Many are fleeing gang violence, poverty or both and hope to reunite with relatives already in the United States. Unlike children from Mexico, those coming from Central America are entitled to an immigration hearing and may not be automatically deported under U.S. law. President Barack Obama has asked Congress to approve an emergency $3.7 billion spending bill to deal with the crisis.
Some of these youths are being sent to shelters around the country, including in Florida.
Armstrong, who shared the letter with reporters, cited an ABC News report that the federal government was so overwhelmed that it was not providing basic medical screenings to the children and demanded to know what steps the department was taking to screen the children and track infectious diseases.
The federal government is not calling the state to say where or when it is placing the children in Florida or for how long, said governor spokesman John Tupps.
The letter, which was also addressed to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, requests details about "any records of infectious diseases associated with the children currently in federal care in Florida..."
"I just don't get it," Little said. "We've been seeing children for years who've fled Central America and other countries and arrive here. We interact with them (at the shelters) all the time. We're not afraid of catching any horrific diseases. Maybe a child has a common cold. The concerns being raised here are so farfetched in our experience."
Miami immigration attorney Cheryl Little said she was confused by the letter since the federal government has for years housed unaccompanied children who have crossed the U.S.-Mexican border in South Florida shelters. She said her organization, Americans for Immigrant Justice, meets with dozens of these youth each week.
Little said the number of youth her organization has provided services to has increased drastically in the last year — up from about 1,600 in 2013 to that many as of July of this year.
She said the two main youth shelters in Miami together house about 200 youth and are adding another 24 beds. She said minors are sent there as they await their legal cases, often for asylum or to reunite with parents in the country. They tend to stay in the shelters from a week to a month, depending on the case.
The federal health department on Friday acknowledged a recent outbreak of pneumonia and the flu among youngsters at a temporary shelter at a Naval base in California's Ventura County but said the general public was not at risk.
In a statement, federal health department spokesman Kenneth J. Wolfe said the agency does provide medical exams to the children, as well as vaccines and that if children do have communicable diseases, they are quarantined.
"This week, HHS took additional measures to ensure that children previously screened, vaccinated and medically cleared while in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody had not fallen ill while pending transport to Unaccompanied Alien Children program facilities," Wolfe said.