Refugee, migrant shelters for children referenced in Tennessee debate are separate under federal rules

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / The Old Tennessee Temple University dorm building in Highland Park is seen on Monday, April 12, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Controversy in the past week about the movement of migrant children through Tennessee and into a Chattanooga shelter licensed by the state in May 2020 has led to confusion about the immigration status of the children housed in Southeast Tennessee and those video recorded exiting a plane in Chattanooga.

Gov. Bill Lee has previously been criticized for his strong words against President Joe Biden administration policies related to the unaccompanied minors after announcing in 2019 the state would continue resettling refugees.

The refugee resettlement program Lee supported under then-President Donald Trump is a separate program, housed primarily in the Department of State, to provide cash assistance, language training and job skills to refugees whom the federal government has determined either faced persecution in their home countries or have a credible fear of future persecution. Refugees are typically vetted outside the United States before receiving permission to enter the country. The president decides the number of refugees admitted to the country each year through the annual Presidential Determination.

The governor faced criticism from some conservatives at the time for continuing to accept refugees. Lee cited his Christian faith, calling it a "moral obligation" and a "biblical mandate" for the state to remain in the program.

This is a separate program from federal efforts to care for unaccompanied children who, after they cross the border, are initially in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection. ICE and CBP have three days to move the children away from a temporary border shelter to a shelter run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Children stay in ORR shelters, like the one in Chattanooga, for about a month while caseworkers locate and vet a sponsor, usually a relative, to take custody of the child until immigration proceedings can begin.

Unaccompanied children have entered the country without legal status but can apply for asylum, an immigration process in which they need to prove they faced persecution in their home country or have a credible fear of future persecution if they are returned. If granted asylum, the children would have lawful residence in the United States and could become citizens.

On May 19, WRCB aired video of children getting off a plane at the Wilson Air Center to be transported to shelters or placed with sponsors throughout the region. The video sparked outrage from members of Tennessee's congressional delegation and Lee, who said he had declined a Biden administration request to house unaccompanied minors in the state.

However, documents from the state show Lee's own Department of Children's Services licensed the shelter near downtown Chattanooga to house "unaccompanied minors" in May 2020.

On Monday, the Times Free Press asked Lee why his administration approved the license for the facility, conducted monthly inspections and issued monthly reports if the governor was then raising concerns about a lack of transparency over migrant children and saying he declined a federal request to house unaccompanied children.

Although the Times Free Press asked specifically about the migrant children, the governor said the Times Free Press was conflating unaccompanied minors with refugees.

"These are unaccompanied, illegal immigrant children," Lee responded during the Monday news conference. "Those are two entirely separate issues."

It's not clear whether the the governor was referencing the unrelated State Department refugee program even though the Times Free Press was asking about the HHS shelter for migrant children - or whether he was saying the Chattanooga shelter houses refugees.

The Times Free Press asked the governor's office four times over three days whether the office had evidence the Baptiste Group, which operates the shelter in Chattanooga, was only supposed to house refugees or whether the group misled the state in its application about what type of migrant would be housed in the Chattanooga shelter.

The governor's office said the Biden administration was not being transparent with the state. The governor's office did not offer any of the requested documents or provide other evidence.

Laine Arnold, communications director for the governor, told the Times Free Press the state's role in licensing the facility is based on ensuring safety and that the state does not determine who is housed in the shelter.

"The Department of Children's Services' statutory obligation is to grant licenses on the grounds of facility conditions and staffing, not occupants, and licenses will continue to be evaluated on the grounds of safe conditions," Arnold said in an email Thursday.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga pastor housing migrant children rebukes 'people who call themselves Christians' and hateful comments he received)

According to an organizational study of the Baptiste Group, compiled by a Tennessee Department of Children's Services employee in 2020, the Chattanooga facility would be used to provide care for "unaccompanied minors in the Office of Refugee Resettlement custody." The state renewed the license in February 2021 after an on-site inspection. The most recent license, a copy of which was obtained by the Times Free Press, was signed by Jennifer Nichols, the commissioner of Tennessee's Department of Children's Services whom Lee appointed to the position in January 2019.

During the application process for the residential care license, the state was also provided a copy of the federal contract between the Baptiste Group and the Department of Health and Human Services, according to documents provided by the state.

"This contract is to provide housing, personal care, supervision and monitoring to up to 100 unaccompanied minor children," the charter application reads. "This facility will provide short term care to children, ideally up to 30 days, until they are reunited with a sponsor home or appear at an immigration hearing where other arrangements are ordered."

(READ MORE: Tennessee representatives propose bill to increase federal transparency on immigration)

The Georgia-based federal contractor the Baptiste Group operates the Chattanooga shelter with a federal grant from the Administration for Children and Families. According to federal grant records, the Baptiste Group received federal dollars over the past three fiscal years to provide "Residential Shelter Services for Unaccompanied Alien Children."

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

Interview with Gov. Bill Lee during May 24, 2021 news conference

Times Free Press: Governor, you had tweeted last week that you all were going to decline the Biden administration’s request to house unaccompanied minors in the Baptiste Group house in Chattanooga but your administration had previously approved it, I think, beginning in May of 2020, renewed it and renewed it again, I think, in February of this year. It’s clear that they’re dealing with unaccompanied minors. What has changed your mind?Gov. Bill Lee: The Biden administration requested weeks ago that we house unaccompanied minors in this state in a congregant setting and we declined that request.TFP: But they had been granted permission going back as far as, I think, May of 2020.Lee: I think you might be conflating that with refugees. These are unaccompanied, illegal immigrant children. Those are two entirely separate issues.TFP: So it was for refugees and not unaccompanied minors?Lee: Yeah, that’s a legal, vetted, certain number of people that are political and religiously persecuted refugees. That’s an entirely different issue than illegal immigrants that are being trafficked, human trafficked, children being human trafficked across our border into this country and then dispersed across the border. This is a policy of an open border that incentivizes the human trafficking of children and it should absolutely be stopped. And the way it would be stopped is to secure the border.