TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Amid escalating bipartisan demands for President Donald Trump to stop separating undocumented immigrant children from their families at the southern U.S. border, two high-ranking Florida Democrats were denied access Tuesday to a federal detention facility in Homestead housing an estimated 1,000 minors.
The Trump administration family-separation policy --- which has resulted in more than 2,000 children being warehoused throughout the country during a six-week period --- has drawn harsh rebukes from Democrats, immigration advocates and a growing chorus of Republicans, including the two men vying to replace Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis have spent months hitching themselves to Trump’s coattails.
But, as Scott did this week, the gubernatorial hopefuls adopted softer stances to the hardline immigration policy, which spawned photos of tearful toddlers and audio recordings of children screaming for their mamas and papis.
“It’s important that we enforce our laws in a humane way and families should be kept together. With secure borders, you would have less of this issue. Washington needs to work with President Trump to find a solution,” Putnam said in a statement issued by his campaign Tuesday.
When asked about the issue Monday during a campaign appearance in Bradenton, DeSantis, who’s carved out a reputation as an immigration hawk and claims to have Trump’s endorsement, said he would “keep the family together and repatriate them back as a family unit.”
Scott, who is trying to oust veteran U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and who is an ally of Trump, also distanced himself from the policy --- saying he does “not favor separating families” --- while at the same time mirroring the president’s finger-pointing at Congress for the situation.
“What the country is witnessing right now is the byproduct of the many years of bipartisan inaction and failure from our federal government,’’ Scott said in a statement distributed by his Senate campaign. “They have failed to secure our borders, which has resulted in this chaos. Let me be clear --- I do not favor separating families. Washington is to blame for this by being all talk and no action, and the solution is to secure the border.”
But while four other governors --- including Republicans from Maryland and Massachusetts --- are refusing to lend aid to the federal border defense, Scott does not plan to recall three Florida National Guard troops dispatched to support the effort.
Tuesday evening, Scott sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, seeking information about the children reportedly housed at the Homestead facility.
Scott asked Azar to notify federal, state and local authorities immediately about any current or future unaccompanied minors, “or children who were separated from their families under President Trump’s zero-tolerance policy toward illegal entry into the United States” coming to or already in Florida. The governor also sought details about health screenings, education and social services provided to the children.
The opposition from Scott, Putnam and DeSantis to the policy --- which Trump administration officials claim is not a policy --- comes amid competitive campaigns in a state with a fast-growing number of Hispanics, a voting bloc both Republicans and Democrats consider critical to November victories.
Nelson on Tuesday captured national attention after he and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., were barred from entering a privately run federal detention facility in Homestead. Nelson said that, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 94 of the approximately 1,000 children housed in the facility were taken from their families at the border.
Nelson and Wasserman Schultz, accompanied by incoming state House Minority Leader Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, told reporters that the contractor running the facility approved their visit.
But Nelson said that, while en route to the detention center Tuesday morning, he was contacted by Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan, who told him the facility was off-limits.
“This is not a good day for our country, where a U.S. senator and a U.S. congresswoman have been turned away from a federal facility because the Trump administration does not want us to check on the welfare and the care of the children inside, children who have been taken from their moms and dads,” an irate Nelson told reporters outside the center.
The three Democrats accused Trump and his administration of a cover-up.
“They are obviously hiding something,” Nelson said. “This is absolutely ridiculous. I am ashamed of this administration, that they are doing this.”
The tension outside the Homestead facility, surrounded by a chain link fence, reflected the increasingly heated rhetoric in Florida and throughout the nation as Trump and his supporters dig in on the issue while more and more Republicans --- especially those who are Hispanic or running in swing districts --- criticize the family separation process.
“It depends on how it plays out, but it’s certainly not a great general-election issue, for sure,” Brian Ballard, a Republican lobbyist and fundraiser who has close ties to Trump and Scott, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Tuesday.
The situation could provide an opportunity for Republican candidates to define themselves, Ballard said.
“I think it allows folks like Gov. Scott and the gubernatorial candidates to show where they can differ but still be strong Trump supporters. I don’t think people transfer 100 percent of one person to another. Donald Trump’s his own man. There are very few people who agree with Donald Trump on every issue. I think you have to pick your shots,” Ballard said.
But the anger outside the Miami-Dade County facility portrayed a more visceral reaction to the policy state Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, called “unethical and shameful, to say the least.”
Wasserman Schultz, a former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee who has called on U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to resign, said the Democratic lawmakers wanted to ensure that the children were being cared for.
“Are they abusing these kids? Are they sleeping on the floor? Are they in cages? This is an absolute outrage,” she said.
But, as dramatic as the images of sobbing children pleading to be reunited with their parents may be, Ballard believes the Trump administration’s handling of the policy won’t harm the GOP in the fall.
“I don’t think it’s as problematic for Republicans, who can handle issue by issue. You agree with the president on some things, you disagree with him. You don’t have to go over the top. You don’t have to be crazy in how you criticize him. You do it in a respectful way,” he said, adding that Trump is “making a compelling case” for the need to separate undocumented children from the undocumented immigrant adults who are accompanying them at the border.
“I think it will work out. I don’t think it’s a defining issue in the general election,” Ballard said.