Tennessee lawmakers announce study group on unaccompanied migrant issues

Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, addresses the House members after being sworn in as House Speaker during a special session of the Tennessee House Friday, Aug. 23, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE - Tennessee's Senate and House speakers announced Friday creation of a special committee to look into the issue of unaccompanied migrant children coming into Chattanooga and other parts of the state under a federal program that has generated controversy in Chattanooga.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said the Study Committee on Refugee Issues will "evaluate" the number of migrant children being "permanently relocated" here by the federal government as well how many of the children are being flown into the state and later relocated to other states.

Another task of the panel, according to McNally and Sexton, is seeking ways to "increase transparency from the federal government regarding the relocation of unaccompanied migrant children to and through Tennessee, and the impact, financial and beyond, as it relates to the federal government's migrant relocation program."

Sexton said in a statement that President Joe Biden "campaigned on transparency; instead, his administration continues to withhold critical information from our elected members and our taxpayers about the resettlement of unaccompanied migrant children in Tennessee communities."

The speaker said Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and other governors "have requested additional information on this situation to no avail from President Biden. We must have transparency to address the concerns raised by both members of the General Assembly and Tennesseans."

Sexton said he is "in agreement" with Lee "not to accept any unaccompanied migrant children. I appreciate Lt. Gov. McNally, as well as all those serving on the study committee, for their partnership in shining a light on the federal government's secretive immigration practices."

Both Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, are among five senators named by McNally to the panel, with Sen. Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro, serving as chair for the senators on the joint panel. Other members are Sens. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, and Ed Jackson, R-Jackson.

Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown, is chair for the five House members serving on the joint panel. Others include Reps. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, Scotty Campbell, R-Mountain City and Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson.

No Democratic members from either chamber were listed in the release.

Tennessee's two Republican U.S. senators, Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, as well as U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, have blasted Biden in recent weeks as planeloads of the minors have landed at the Chattanooga airport to be placed in a local facility while others are transported by bus from the city to other parts of the Southeastern U.S.

In a letter to the secretaries of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the federal lawmakers complained they were "deeply troubled by the lack of transparency and accountability regarding the conditions that HHS is subjecting the children to."

They also cited WRCB's reports that "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."

On yet another front, Tennessee House Government Operations Committee Chairman John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, has put four of Lee's executive branch commissioners on notice that the panel is looking into their response along with the well-being of the migrant children. He said his concerns include whether any migrant children have been the victims of sexual trafficking and the costs to the state.

Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, told the Times Free Press earlier on Friday that "when children leave their homes and travel 2,000 miles to the U.S. to escape dangerous, impoverished, and unsafe conditions, human trafficking is a true concern."

She said "that is why every child in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) gets a federally mandated trafficking screening. The federal government is screening and pulling kids out of trafficking situations."

Sherman-Nikolaus said federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, know where these children are at all times. For unaccompanied children, ORR is the legal guardian until kids are reunited with family or loved ones in safe, vetted homes. To make sure these children are treated with compassion and care, we must let ORR do its job and work to swiftly and safely reunite children with loved ones."

She also said the "way we speak about these kids in our state must reflect the inherent compassion of Tennesseans. Despite the misinformation circulating in our communities, the fact is these are vulnerable children, and they need us to stand up for their rights. Every child deserves to be with people they love and who love them."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.