Tennessee governor, representatives blast Biden for lack of transparency on migrant children

FILE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, file)

Tennessee's congressional representatives issued strong words Thursday against President Joe Biden's administration and what they described as a lack of transparency around the alleged movement of unaccompanied migrant children through Chattanooga.

Republican Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, along with U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, issued a letter to the secretaries of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security saying the lawmakers are "deeply troubled by the lack of transparency and accountability regarding the conditions that HHS is subjecting the children to.

"There are media reports that, within the last week, at least four planes carrying [unaccompanied children] landed at Wilson Air Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, before swiftly boarding the children onto buses and transporting them to multiple cities across the southeastern United States for apparent resettlement, with zero transparency regarding what was happening," the letter reads.

Video and details about migrant children apparently moving through Chattanooga's airport to be transported by bus through the Southeast was reported by WRCB-TV Channel 3 on Wednesday. The Times Free Press has not independently verified these reports. HHS did not respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon.

The letter from Blackburn, Hagerty and Fleischmann requests more information and a briefing from the two secretaries.

"The citizens of Tennessee are entitled to more information," the letter reads. "After all, their schools, hospitals and law enforcement agencies will bear the burden of this reported resettlement, which is the product of an ongoing border crisis that is making every town a border town."

In April, Redemption to the Nations Church drew criticism from some area residents for leasing an unused building to an organization with a federal contract to temporarily house unaccompanied migrant children. The children, between the ages of 12 and 17, receive education on site and are not placed in Hamilton County Schools. According to federal policy from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, unaccompanied migrant children do not attend local schools.

"ORR pays for and provides all services for the children while they are in care at a shelter," the office's website says. "This includes food, clothing, education, medical screening and any needed medical care to the children."

Guided by federal policy, the ORR moves children to federally funded and state-licensed facilities, such as the one in Chattanooga, for care until they can be placed with sponsors and wait for their court hearings.

Gov. Bill Lee said in a Thursday afternoon tweet that he declined a request from the Biden administration to house unaccompanied minors "weeks ago." The governor called the recent spike in immigration "one of the worst human trafficking crises we've seen at our border in the last 20 years."

While the number of unaccompanied children in federal custody has grown to record levels in recent months, more children were released to sponsors in Tennessee in fiscal year 2019 than the state is on pace to reunite now, according to HHS data. Between October 2018 and September 2019, 2,191 children were released to sponsors in Tennessee compared to the 717 children released between October 2020 and March 2021.

In December 2019, Lee agreed to let refugees continue resettling in Tennessee, part of a program under then-President Donald Trump in which states could opt out of accepting refugees. In defending his decision, Lee emphasized his Christian faith and told critics that Congress needed to address immigration reform because individual states "have no say in immigration policy."

Refugees, by definition, are those who are forced to flee because of violence or persecution, whereas migrants often move for economic reasons.

The pastor who agreed to help house unaccompanied migrant children in Chattanooga said last month his decision made him and his church the target of harassment.

"I have seen people who call themselves Christians demonstrate the nastiest demeanor," said Kevin Wallace, pastor of Redemption to the Nations Church, in April.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.