Gov. Lee, Tennessee Republicans criticize federal plans to move some migrants here as Trump policy expires

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks with members of the media in Cleveland, Tenn., on Nov. 1.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks with members of the media in Cleveland, Tenn., on Nov. 1.

NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Lee and fellow prominent Republicans are demanding the Biden administration abandon what they say are plans to transport some migrant detainees from a federal facility in New Orleans to Tennessee.

But Tennessee faith-based groups and other advocates for immigrants pushed back, accusing Lee and Republicans U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty of Tennessee of seeking to exploit Tennesseans' worst fears.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Lee said federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials informed the state Monday that "they plan to release single adult detainees into Tennessee while they await court proceedings.

The dispute arises as the Biden administration continues a legal effort to stop enforcing a pandemic-era border policy known as Title 42 that limited entry to the U.S. by migrants.

"This is irresponsible and a threat to the safety of Tennesseans," Lee said in the statement. "Furthermore, we already have a national security crisis at our border, and the Biden administration's attempt to revoke Title 42 will only incentivize more illegal crossings."

"The Biden Administration is trafficking illegal immigrants into communities across the country, including here in Tennessee," Blackburn said in a statement.

Leaders from the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, the National Immigration Law Center and others criticized all three officials of peddling fear.

  photo  Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and other Republican senators speak at the Capitol in Washington on Dec. 15. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

"Having worked on this issue for decades, I am repulsed by the divisive comments by some Tennessee elected officials in recent days who are cynically employing a failed right-wing strategy of fear-mongering and scapegoating immigrants," said Lisa Graybill, vice president of law and policy for the National Immigration Law Center, who joined a Wednesday conference call hosted by the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition.

Hagerty and Blackburn claimed federal officials were working with the coalition to bring migrants to Tennessee.

"As many as 50 single-adult, detained illegal immigrants could be bused to Tennessee at a time," the senators said in a letter to the administration.

Lisa Sherman Luna, coalition executive director, said all discussions federal officials have had with groups such as hers as well as state and local government representatives have been preliminary in nature.

The talks were an effort by federal officials to better coordinate what has been a somewhat haphazard practice in the past under which migrants were vetted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and then released to make it on their own to Nashville or other parts of Tennessee. Most stay a short time before seeking to reunite with family members already living in other states, she said.

Most of them are asylum seekers fleeing repressive and even dangerous conditions, Sherman Luna said.

"For decades, Tennesseans have done this work formally and informally," Sherman Luna said, noting it goes back to Cubans fleeing their country in the early 1960s. "We've welcomed people and supported them as they rebuild their lives in this country. The fact is none of this is new. Welcoming and hospitality is woven into the fabric of who Tennesseans are.

"What is new, and an important first step, is a good faith effort to organize a coordinated response between governments and local process, to ensure that it is orderly. While we've seen other governors and mayors who have responded to newcomers arriving in buses from border states, using their power and resources to make the process as smooth as possible, Gov. Lee's response is really extreme and out of step with his constituents."

Lee responded in a statement that it's not compassionate to perpetuate a problem that leads to more exploitation and trafficking.

"Seven thousand people unlawfully enter our country every day," the statement said. "This crisis is too big to ignore, and the only way to stop it is to secure the border."

  photo  Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., speaks during a news conference in Chattanooga on May 4, 2021.

Case by case

An ICE spokesperson said in a Tuesday evening email to the Chattanooga Times Free Press that the agency makes custody determinations daily on a case-by-case basis, considering the merits and factors of each case while adhering to guidelines and legal mandates.

"Noncitizens apprehended and determined to need custodial supervision are placed in detention facilities, and those released from secure custody are part of ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations nondetained docket," the spokesperson said.

Enforcement and Removal Operations officers, the spokesperson said, weigh multiple factors when making general custody determinations, including criminal record, immigration history, community ties, flight risk and whether the individual poses a potential threat to public safety.

Noncitizens placed on ICE's nondetained docket are enrolled in the agency's Alternatives to Detention program, the spokesperson added. The program uses technology, case management and other tools to manage compliance with release conditions.

Strong faith

Tennessee House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons of Nashville called Lee's comments "very disappointing.

"To mischaracterize all immigrants and refugees as a threat to our state is disheartening to hear," Clemmons said. "We have a strong faith community and nonprofit network that's going to require no public resources or tax dollars that can assist these individuals and provide them help and support."

A Chattanooga controversy

Chattanooga had its own controversy over migrants in 2021 when Local 3 News aired video of flights involving migrant children being flown to the city's airport, where they were placed on buses for transport to shelters or taken to sponsors who lived in the region.

The flights landed at night, which seemed to ignite a firestorm of criticism from conservatives. It also prompted U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, to question U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra publicly about it in a congressional hearing. Incensed, state Republican lawmakers later created an ad hoc committee that held hearings.

The Chattanooga shelter that came under fire opened under a federal contract let by the administration of former President Donald Trump. It was licensed by Gov. Bill Lee's administration, and that license was expanded to allow for more shelter capacity before the TV report caused the uproar.

Outraged conservatives in Tennessee and elsewhere used the news report to attack Biden's border policies and accuse the administration of trafficking children.

The state suspended the group home La Casa de Sidney over having a lack of qualified staff. The Georgia-based Baptiste Group, which operated the shelter, fought in court for months until eventually reaching a settlement with the state. The Baptiste Group voluntarily gave up its license. The June agreement allowed the group home to reopen if the Baptiste Group opted to do so. That has not happened.

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