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Gov. DeSantis may stop Florida migrant shelters from caring for unaccompanied kids


We now turn to Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis is clashing with federal immigration officials. DeSantis is threatening to stop migrant shelters from caring for unaccompanied children, but that's drawing sharp criticism from religious and business leaders in the state. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: For years, the U.S. has treated children who cross the border without their parents differently from other migrants, caring for them in special shelters around the country until they can be reunited with a parent or another sponsor. A record number of unaccompanied children arrived this way last year, and there's a growing backlash among Republicans, including the governor of Florida.


RON DESANTIS: We don't want to be facilitating what is effectively the largest human smuggling operation in American history.

ROSE: This fight between the Biden administration and Governor DeSantis, who is said to be considering a run for president himself, has been building since November, when a migrant who allegedly pretended to be a minor to get into the U.S. was accused of murder in Jacksonville. Now DeSantis says Florida will stop licensing the shelters that care for unaccompanied children, unless the federal government makes big changes to the program that would give the state more control. But those shelters have some powerful allies in Florida, a state with a long history of welcoming unaccompanied children.


ELENA MULLER GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish). I was 13 years old when I arrived in Florida in 1961.

ROSE: Elena Muller Garcia was one of the 14,000 children who fled to the U.S. from Cuba during what's known as Operation Pedro Pan. At a press conference yesterday in Miami, she compared herself to the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children, mostly from Central America, who are crossing the southern border now.


GARCIA: Sending me alone almost 62 years ago was one of the hardest decisions my parents ever made. I feel the angst of the parents who today are compelled to send their children to safety thousands of miles away from home.

ROSE: Governor DeSantis disagrees with that comparison.


DESANTIS: It's wrong. It is not even close to the same thing.

ROSE: Earlier this week, DeSantis held his own event in Miami surrounded by Cuban American supporters, including businessman Maximo Alvarez, who was also 13 when he came to the U.S. in Operation Pedro Pan.


MAXIMO ALVAREZ: When we came, we came directly into the hands of the church. This is not what is happening right now. Not even close.

ROSE: Operation Pedro Pan was a collaboration between the Catholic Church and the U.S. State Department that was intended to get children out of communist Cuba. DeSantis says that's very different from the uncontrolled migration at the U.S.-Mexico border today.


DESANTIS: To equate what's going on with the southern border with mass trafficking of humans, illegal entry, drugs, all this other stuff with Operation Pedro Pan, quite frankly, is disgusting.

ROSE: That choice of words did not sit well with the Archbishop of Miami, Thomas Wenski.

THOMAS WENSKI: Children are children, and no child should be deemed disgusting.

ROSE: Some prominent business leaders objected, too.

MIKE FERNANDEZ: Let me tell you what I think is disgusting - a proposed heartless policy towards immigrant children.

ROSE: Mike Fernandez is a wealthy investor and a major Republican political donor in South Florida who also came to the U.S. from Cuba during Operation Pedro Pan.

FERNANDEZ: We became productive citizens of our state, of our country, and we helped build Florida into the powerhouse that it is today. Those children are us today.

ROSE: Catholic Charities still operates the longest running shelter for migrant children in the state. It's not clear yet if that shelter and others in Florida can keep going without state licenses, or if the governor will push to shut them down altogether.

Joel Rose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN TINGVALL'S "THE ROCKET III") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.