Christian advocates for immigrant children are protesting two Florida measures that they say will keep them from following God’s call to minister to the vulnerable.
One measure, an executive order from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, jeopardizes foster care licenses for anyone who takes in unaccompanied immigrant children who arrive in the country without authorization. The other, a bill being fast-tracked through the state legislature, would bar state and local governments from contracting with businesses that knowingly transport undocumented immigrants, including bus companies or airlines.
“It’s really an attempt to stop us from doing the work that God has called us to do,” said Agustin Quiles.
Quiles is director of government relations and community affairs for La Fraternidad de Concilios y Entidades Evangélicas (FRACEEV), a fellowship of evangelical Spanish-speaking pastors and leaders in Florida. The fellowship represents about 2,500 churches and organizations across the state. On Feb. 24, they mobilized more than 200 clergy to rally at the Florida statehouse against the anti-immigration measures.
“We did actually kneel down in front of the Capitol and we sang worship songs and we prayed, we prayed in front of the Capitol,” Quiles said.
The clergy also visited the state Senate president’s office and delivered letters to the governor’s office asking DeSantis to rescind his executive order, according to Quiles. The rally was originally planned to coincide with a hearing on the bill, but the hearing was canceled, Quiles said.
FRACEEV’s member churches are generally conservative, both politically and theologically, Quiles said, but he was quick to note that being conservative did not mean simply following the lead of one political party or candidate. That’s a message they hoped would get across to the state’s majority Republican legislature: “The Bible has a greater weight,” than partisan positions, Quiles said.
“For the Latino evangelicals, we are in proximity to the pain of our community more than the white evangelicals are,” he added. “For us, it’s personal. It’s our church members. It’s children; we see them as our children … these are Latino children that come.”
Churches within FRACEEV worked with other centers in Florida to reunite about 10,000 immigrant children with their families in 2021, according to the fellowship’s website. Since 2015, they’ve helped about 35,000 children get back to their families.
The churches and other centers are entrusted with children’s care through the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an office within the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The ORR oversees short-term care for children arriving in the U.S. without authorization and separate from their parents. The children stay in centers or with foster families until the agency can locate someone to place them with more permanently — usually a parent or close relative who’s already in the U.S.
The Miami Herald recently reported that 17 centers in Florida offer housing or other services to unaccompanied immigrant children in ORR’s care. But DeSantis’s executive order, already in effect, directs the state’s Department of Children and Families not to renew licenses for foster families or agencies that serve those immigrant children. Hundreds of faith leaders wrote to DeSantis in January asking him to reverse the order. Members of FRACEEV sent a similar letter at that time, too.
Matthew Soerens, director of church mobilization for World Relief in the United States, noted that DeSantis’s order is similar to a Texas order that left more than 40 child migrant centers operating without state licenses last summer.
World Relief does not house unaccompanied immigrant children and does not have offices in Florida, but Sorens said he’s watching developments in the state with interest.
“We’re troubled whenever there’s any level of government basically stepping in the way of churches or faith-based ministries or just faith-motivated individuals living out their faith,” Soerens said. “When we see foster parents — working with folks like Bethany Christian Services or the Catholic Church’s ministries there — being told the state’s going to eventually prevent this from happening, we think that’s a very troubling precedent.”
Florida’s Senate Bill 1808 and its counterpart, House Bill 1355, cover a variety of proposed measures the bill calls immigration enforcement. One provision in the bills would prohibit a governmental entity from contracting with “common carriers” — companies that provide transportation to the public — if the common carrier transports someone into Florida who it knows is an unauthorized immigrant. (There is an exception for deportation.)
Organizations like Church World Service and the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as FRACEEV have expressed opposition to the bills. Church World Service called the bills “harmful and immoral” and “an affront to religious freedom and our moral and compassionate call to serve the vulnerable.”
Likewise, the leaders of FRACEEV’s “Day of Action” rally last week argued that the legislative bills and DeSantis’s executive order infringe on their religious freedom to minister to children regardless of immigration status.
The children the churches minister to, as young as 2 or 3, often develop physical and emotional trauma as a result of the difficult journey to the United States and being separated from their parents.
“We work with churches throughout the state that work with these unaccompanied minors,” Quiles said. “We even have 2-year-olds that come, really alone, even some of them have been raped on the journey coming here.”
Quiles said FRACEEV leaders are evaluating their next steps and hope to meet with DeSantis to share their concerns directly. The foundation for their work, he said, is in the words of Christ himself.
“Jesus said, anyone who welcomes a child in my name, welcomes me,” Quiles said.