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Opinion Ron DeSantis is paving his path to the White House on the backs of vulnerable immigrant children

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks during a news conference in Pembroke Pines, Fla., on Aug. 18. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg)

In a crowded 2024 presidential field, Republican politicians are seeking any path available to the nomination. Lately, they’ve decided the most promising one is paved on the backs of vulnerable immigrant children.

Among the most brazen to adopt this strategy: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Republicans see immigration and the surge of asylum seekers at the border as potent issues for attacking President Biden — and for building their own political careers. It doesn’t matter that Biden has kept in place Donald Trump’s most restrictionist and inhumane (and probably also illegal) border policies. According to Republicans and right-wing media, Biden is still somehow promoting “open borders.”

This baloney has long been red meat for the conservative base. Now, every GOP politician — even those nowhere near the border — wants a nibble.

Governors from such far-flung states as Arkansas, South Dakota and Florida sent their National Guard troops and highway patrol troopers to the southwestern border this year. The forces were ostensibly deployed to help enforce federal immigration law, even though they have zero jurisdiction on the matter.

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Stunt-hungry governors sometimes arranged their own personal trips to the border, too, racking up huge bills. DeSantis, for instance, had his own photo op in July; Florida taxpayers are now on the hook for at least $1.6 million for his various border-related boondoggles.

But eventually politicians decided it wasn’t enough to merely declare themselves generically anti-immigrant. To prove their true Trumpy nativist bona fides, they must also prove their willingness to be cruel to immigrant children. And so they have.

For months, the DeSantis administration has been jerking around shelters and foster families that care for unaccompanied migrant kids, including by refusing to renew these providers’ licenses. One shelter, run by Lutheran Services of Florida, had to close entirely in November because the state wouldn’t respond to its renewal application. The shelter scrambled to relocate the nearly 60 traumatized children in its care.

The shelter sued over the state’s unexplained stonewalling. On Thursday, on the eve of a court hearing, the new license magically materialized. DeSantis then released a confusing new “emergency rule” the following morning, which said existing shelters could continue operating and renewing their licenses for the next 45 days only. After that period, the state will license or re-license care providers only if the Biden administration agrees to onerous and possibly illegal demands, such as giving shelters new obligations usually handled by other federal contractors.

At best, these demands would make it more financially challenging for shelters in the state to continue operating; at worst, they might be a poison pill designed to force providers to lose their licenses and close.

In other words, DeSantis appears to be laying the groundwork to kick vulnerable migrant children out of Florida shelters and transitional foster care. This would force more kids into unlicensed emergency intake sites at military bases and convention centers, which even Republicans have criticized as unsafe and unsuitable for children.

What’s behind this policy change?

In comments to Breitbart — tellingly, the DeSantis administration announced the new policy via the virulently nativist, pro-Trump publication — state officials offered various bogus rationales.

They said they were fighting against “the Biden Administration’s massive human-smuggling operation,” referring to the transfer of unaccompanied children from the southwestern border to Florida. Of course, sending unaccompanied children to licensed care facilities before they’re ultimately placed with permanent sponsors — including sponsors based in Florida — is precisely what federal law requires.

DeSantis’s spokesperson also claimed DeSantis was preventing the Biden administration from “diverting resources away from kids in need in Florida.” But shelters and transitional foster-care families that care for unaccompanied immigrant children are completely federally funded and operate separate from locations that serve domestic kids. In other words, a bed that doesn’t go to an asylum-seeking migrant child would not otherwise go to an orphaned Floridian.

DeSantis, for his part, offered a stomach-churning suggestion that he’s keeping out foreign-born kids because they’re inherently dangerous.

“When I was serving in Iraq, we considered, like, a 16- or 17-year-old Iraqi to be a military-age male,” he said at a briefing Friday. “And so, they’re effectively minors in that respect, but you have people that are more, you know, advanced.”

In reality, this decision is not about human rights. It’s not about fiscal responsibility. And it’s not about public safety. It’s about matching other presidential hopefuls’ performative cruelty to immigrant children.

DeSantis is copying similar measures announced earlier this year by other red states, including South Carolina and Texas. Both of those states ultimately watered down their policies following pushback from the faith community, which is deeply involved in foster care nationwide.

Experts who work in children’s services say they don’t know how the Florida version of the policy will play out. They’re worried even more red-state copycats will follow. After all, if a presidential candidate can’t move to the border, the border must move to the candidate.

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