State Rep. Hakeem of Chattanooga calls committee on refugee issues 'extreme partisan effort'

Staff photo by Robin Rudd/ State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, speaks to attendees as the Chattanooga/Hamilton County Branch of the NAACP presents a Jubilee Day Celebration hosted by First Baptist Church on January 1, 2020. Jubilee Day recalls Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, the document that freed the slaves.

State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, has criticized a Republican-led push to study the travel of unaccompanied migrant children through Tennessee - and specifically the decision to prevent Democrats from serving on the study committee - calling it an "extreme partisan effort that gives red meat to their base."

"I think it's heartless and lacks the Christian ideals that members of that group profess," Hakeem said.

He added the move does not represent the "goodness" of Tennessee and "to put a vulnerable group of people in your cross-hairs for political reasons is unconscionable."

Hakeem said if Republican leaders had read the contract governing the Chattanooga shelter, they would understand the policies are unchanged since the arrangement was approved under former President Donald Trump and licensed by the administration of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.

He noted the number of unaccompanied minors appears to be lower under the administration of President Joe Biden than under the Trump presidency, as reported by the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Hakeem's commentary came after Tennessee's House and Senate speakers formed a partisan committee to evaluate the impact of migrant children the federal government is bringing to Tennessee.

The Study Committee on Refugee Issues, which is spurred by WRCB reports about unaccompanied minors being brought to the Chattanooga airport early in the morning, will look at the number of unaccompanied minors and refugee children being brought to the state for permanent residency or before relocation to other states.

The committee will also examine the financial effect and other factors of bringing the children to Tennessee, according to a letter from House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally.

Some children are being housed, at least temporarily, by the Baptiste Group in Chattanooga until they can be placed with relatives. A state agency renewed a license by the Baptiste Group as late as February 2021 to accept unaccompanied minors under a contract between the organization and the federal government.

Federal figures show the state has been accepting unaccompanied minors for years with no clear uptick in the number since Biden took office in late January.

Nevertheless, Sexton and McNally announced they will be forming the study group in an effort to combat an influx of child immigrants.

"When the federal government abdicates its responsibility to control our borders, states must step in. Through ineffectiveness, inattention and incompetence, the Biden administration has allowed our borders to be overrun," McNally said in a statement.

The Oak Ridge Republican pointed out the Tennessee General Assembly filed suit against the federal government in 2016 in an effort to reshape refugee resettlement and noted the study committee "reaffirms that there is a clear and compelling state interest in a sane immigration policy."

The state lost that lawsuit in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after Attorney General Herbert Slatery refused to take the case, and the Supreme Court declined to hear it.

The Refugee Resettlement Program, which is run by Catholic Charities in Tennessee, is separate from the southern border situation and typically deals with people who come here from war-torn countries or as political refugees. Still, McNally is adamantly opposed to Biden's policies, even after the president dialed back some of his immigration proposals.

"Everyone coming into this country should be properly screened and vetted and there must be openness, transparency and communication between the federal government and Tennessee about how many refugees, migrants and immigrants are entering Tennessee, where they are coming from and where they are going," McNally said in the statement.

Republicans have criticized the Biden administration for months over its immigration policy, calling the situation at the Mexican border a crisis.

According to federal figures, the number of unaccompanied children coming to Tennessee and the United States doesn't appear to be significantly higher this year than it has been for the past seven years.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the federal Administration for Children & Families, reports 27,417 unaccompanied minors came to the United States from October 2020 through April 2021.

That's a big jump from 16,837 the previous year, which was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but lower than in 2018-19, when 72,837 unaccompanied minors entered the country under Trump's administration.

Tennessee, meanwhile, saw 1,111 unaccompanied minors from October 2020 through April 2021, 510 the previous year, 2,191 in 2018-19, 1,173 in 2017-18, 1,066 in 2016-17, 1,354 in 2015-16 and 765 in 2014-15, according to the federal report.

Serving on the committee will be Republican Reps. Dan Howell of Cleveland, Bruce Griffey of Paris, Ryan Williams of Cookeville, Scotty Campbell of Mountain City and Chris Todd of Jackson and Republican Sens. Dawn White of Murfreesboro, Bo Watson of Hixson, Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, Richard Briggs of Knoxville and Ed Jackson of Jackson.

Howell and White, an outspoken opponent of allowing immigrant children to pay in-state tuition as well as sanctuary city policies, will chair the panel.

McNally and Sexton cited the landing of unaccompanied minors at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport as one of the reasons for creating the study committee.

Hakeem reiterated that the travel and housing of unaccompanied children is not new under Biden.

"The change is that, in my view, is that Joe Biden is now the president, and even though the guidelines are the same as that under the Trump administration, they find fault with it. And I think that is disingenuous to see it OK under one administration and not another," he said.

The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition took a more conciliatory tone, saying the state has a long history of welcoming children before they reunite with family and loved ones in the United States.

"When vulnerable children arrive at our borders, our nation has a legal and moral obligation to make sure that they are safely and securely sheltered while working to get them into the homes of those that love them as quickly as possible," said Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, the coalition's executive director. "We welcome the opportunity to speak with the recently formed committee to discuss the asylum process and how we can live up to our highest values of being a beacon of hope for those fleeing danger and persecution."