Tennessee representatives propose bill to increase federal transparency on immigration

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Senator Bill Hagerty speaks during a press conference after a tour at the Chickamauga Lock in Chattanooga on Tuesday, May 4, 2021.
Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Senator Bill Hagerty speaks during a press conference after a tour at the Chickamauga Lock in Chattanooga on Tuesday, May 4, 2021.

Members of Tennessee's congressional delegation are proposing a bill to increase transparency from the federal government about the movement of migrant children, a week after video surfaced of children getting off a plane in Chattanooga.

Republican Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, along with U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, unveiled the Migrant Resettlement Transparency Act, a proposal that opponents said would burden systems that should be focused on care and safety.

"Federal transparency with state and local officials is always important in our republic, but it's particularly critical during the ongoing crisis on the border," Fleischmann said in a statement Thursday announcing the bill.

The bill would require the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to consult governors and local leaders about any proposed relocation or movement of people in the country illegally no less than three days before the transportation occurs.

The secretaries would also be required to submit monthly reports to several Congressional committees and each governor detailing demographic data on the migrants; the types of settings where they are being resettled, transported or relocated; the "methods used to determine the ages"; the "methods used to verify the familial status"; whether the migrants were granted work permits or how they are financially supporting themselves; and the "amounts and types of federal resources spent" on the migrant transportation and resettlement.

Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said children in federal custody are seeking protection from violence and persecution.

"Instead of adding unnecessary burdens to reuniting these children with their loved ones, we can meet the humanitarian challenge by ensuring the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has the resources it needs to ensure children are housed, cared for and safe," Sherman-Nikolaus said in a statement. "This includes clinicians, social workers and case managers who help facilitate family reunification and operate in the best interest of the child."

Outrage from members of the Congressional delegation began last week after WRCB aired video of children being transported from the Chattanooga airport to regional shelters. At the time, Blackburn, Hagerty and Fleischmann wrote the secretaries of HHS and DHS to say they were "deeply troubled by the lack of transparency and accountability" with the federal operation.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee offered support for the delegation, writing on Twitter he had called on the Biden administration to "secure the border & stop scattering children across the country."

The Times Free Press reported this week that Lee's Department of Children's Services last year approved a residential child care license for the federally-funded Chattanooga shelter to house up to 100 "unaccompanied minors" ages 12 to 17. In February 2021, the state renewed the license, which was signed by Jennifer Nichols, the DCS commissioner that Lee appointed to the position in January 2019.

According to state records, children began moving into the Chattanooga shelter in November 2020 and, as of May 20, there were 68 children in the shelter.

(READ MORE: Immigration experts say Tennessee officials are misguided in criticizing unaccompanied migrant children program)

Some of the data reporting that would be required in the bill proposed by the congressional delegation is already made public, including current and historic data on unaccompanied minors' country of origin, age, gender, length of time in HHS custody and how many were placed with a sponsor in each state and county. However, data broken down to the level required in the bill would likely otherwise need to be requested by filing an open records request.

Funding for programs, including the HHS Unaccompanied Children Program, is public information. For example, in fiscal year 2019, $4.5 billion was budgeted for unaccompanied children, according to federal records. The amount of funding received by each federal contractor to run shelters or other services is made available online. The Baptiste Group, which operates the Chattanooga shelter, received a grant for $6.3 million in January 2021, according to federal records. The location of shelters and similar operations are not made public for security reasons, according to ORR policy.

The federal funding process for the unaccompanied children program also includes information about how the government uses authentic birth certificates or DNA confirmation to determine family relations when releasing a child to a sponsor. However, unlike what would be requested in the bill, such information is broken down to the state level.

Judd Deere, spokesperson for Hagerty, acknowledged some of the requested data is available but said more specific reporting needs to be made public.

"The departments involved have this data. Making it available to elected officials or the public would cost virtually nothing," Deere said in an email.

The Tennessee congressional members said local officials and Congress are updated regularly about the federal government's refugee program, and a similar program should be run for migrants in the country illegally.

"While some of this data is made available to elected officials and the public months after resettlements occur, current law does nothing to provide public transparency around what has occurred in recent weeks in Tennessee," Deere said in an email. "The public should not be forced to dig for clues to solve mysteries about what their government is doing in their communities."

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

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