Mayor Tim Kelly said a Texas charter bus company transporting asylum seekers through Chattanooga no longer plans to make stops in the city as part of its route to the Northeast.
Kelly said during a news conference Tuesday that his administration had heard rumors over the past few weeks about buses of migrants making stops in the city, but the administration wasn't able to establish concrete details until late last week when one of the city's police officers made contact with the company.
From that time, he said, the city has been coordinating a multiagency response to ensure migrants have the resources to get to their final destinations. Within 48 hours, Kelly said, the city's Office of New Americans developed a plan of action in coordination with the Chattanooga Police Department, the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority, the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, La Paz Chattanooga and local faith organizations.
"Most of these folks are headed somewhere else," Kelly said. "A lot of them are trying to get to the airport. These are all migrants to our knowledge that have been screened by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security who are legally seeking asylum. I think most, the best we could tell, are from Venezuala."
Fifty-one migrants have deboarded in Chattanooga since the city's coordinated response began, Kelly said. Four of them were greeted by a local family, and the rest proceeded to their final destinations. The majority caught planes elsewhere at the airport, he said.
Kelly said the charter bus company carrying the migrants, Wynne Transportation Holdings, informed the city that as of Tuesday it does not plan on making further stops in Chattanooga.
"We stand ready to reactivate resources to coordinate a compassionate response should the situation change, and if it does, we will respond with our values and help the vulnerable along," Kelly said. "Chattanooga is a community that has always prided itself on its very strong faith community, and I don't think you have to be a biblical scholar to realize that compassion for lost travelers is a very core Christian value."
In protest of what he calls weak federal border policies, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been sending busloads of migrants to Washington, D.C., and New York City to "provide relief to overrun border communities" in his state and "bring the reality of the crisis to the federal government's doorstep."
Chief of Staff Joda Thongnopnua told the Times Free Press that the charter bus company was changing drivers in the Chattanooga area before getting back on the road. Although it's his understanding that the company was not encouraging people to depart in Chattanooga, after 17 hours in a bus it's understandable why travelers would want to leave, he said.
Chattanooga is also within a day's drive of half the United States population, he said, which means the city makes sense as a way station for travelers preparing to proceed on the next leg of their journey. Thongnopnua said he doesn't think the intention was for people to be dropped off in Chattanooga.
"It's clear to me that the governor of Texas did not intend on having a bus that dropped folks off along the way," Thongnopnua said. "He wanted to make a splashy political statement in New York or Washington. It was not, in my personal opinion, the most well-planned endeavor, but I think that's part of the reason why maybe they changed their route."
Chief Equity Officer Tamara Steward said that in many cases the migrants have appointments at immigration centers. They weren't all going to Washington, D.C., or New York City.
"In many cases what we saw was that they were trying to get closer to that appointment location, so it could be any number of locations that they're trying to get to," she said.
During the Chattanooga City Council meeting Tuesday evening, faith leaders and migrant advocates spoke in support of the migrants traveling through the city. Judith Clerjeune, the campaigns and advocacy director for the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, said asylum is a legal protection that can be granted to foreign nationals already in the United States or are arriving at the border who meet the international definition of a refugee.
"Asylum seekers have temporary work permits and protection from deportation," she said. "They are following the legal process for seeking safety and protection in our country, and as a country and also as a state, we have a long history of providing refuge and welcome to people from all over the world. This is an opportunity for us to live in our values, and it seems like that's something we're already doing."
An immigrant whose family is from Korea, John Yun told council members he hopes city leaders will continue to foster a welcoming community in Chattanooga. It's one of the reasons why he chose to move to Chattanooga from Georgia, he said.
"I just want to remind people that I have plenty of friends who are asylum seekers or refugees and they've all become productive members of society. They've become doctors, engineers, lawyers. I'm a lawyer myself and a business owner, and I just hope you'll continue to remember these are all generally good peoples and they're here to just seek out the American Dream just like the rest of us."
Contact David Floyd at email@example.com or at 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.