Redemption to the Nations is housing unaccompanied migrant children who arrived at the border in recent weeks in one of its unused buildings, a move that thrust the Chattanooga-based Pentecostal church back into the latest nationwide immigration debate.
The church property in Highland Park became a lightning rod of debate and rumors on social media over the weekend.
Kevin Wallace, lead pastor at Redemption to the Nations, said his church's involvement is part of a years-long push to be more involved with national immigration issues. Wallace has been the target of criticism from the political left for his actions concerning immigration — and now he is the target of criticism from the political right.
"They are vulnerable and they have no one to advocate for them, and we're just trying to help. That is in keeping with our vision as a church," Wallace told the Times Free Press. "It's in keeping with the mission of the Gospel, and that's why we made the decision. And I understand people aren't always going to recognize why we do what we do."
In June 2018, during a national outcry about President Donald Trump's detention policies, Wallace drew attention for tweeting at the president and the Department of Homeland Security to say he had an unused dormitory he would be glad to use for housing migrant children.
"This is not a joke," he wrote at the time.
The church leased the unused former Tennessee Temple dormitory it owns to a federally funded care organization starting in 2019. The Baptiste Group, which is recruiting bilingual staff in the city, is believed to be operating the facility. The organization operates similar shelters in cities across the country.
The number of children in care in Chattanooga is unknown. The Baptiste Group did not respond to a request from the Times Free Press for comment.
The church near downtown became the target of in-person and online attention after the online publication The Tennessee Conservative first reported rumors about children coming to the city last week. Conservative activists have live-streamed outside the facility, and people accused the church of putting children in inhumane conditions and expressed outrage at the perceived lack of transparency about what is happening in the building.
Wallace said the building where children are living has been renovated and is up to all necessary safety codes, including having a sprinkler system.
A spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families said it does not publish the locations of licensed shelters because of safety concerns. The Baptiste Group is licensed to provide residential care and services for unaccompanied children. To receive federal funding, care organizations must meet federal and state requirements, have proper infrastructure and trained staff and meet other Office of Refugee Resettlement policies, the spokesperson said.
Last month, nearly 19,000 children were picked up traveling alone across the U.S.-Mexico border, according to The Associated Press. The number was the largest monthly total ever recorded. Facilities on the border can only hold unaccompanied children for three days before Customs and Border Protection is required to find a longer-term facility until children can be placed with sponsors.
Wallace drew criticism from the political left in 2019 after he visited a detention facility in Texas and later appeared on Fox News to share his observations. He said that while the conditions there were not great, they were also not as bad as some people made them out to be.
Now facing criticism from the political right, Wallace said caring for unaccompanied children should not be a political issue.
"I am surprised a little bit that some people can't separate the politics from the compassion," Wallace said. "I have experienced the love of God personally, and because of that, I want to demonstrate it to the least of these. And this is, without a question, the least of these. These are the kids who have nowhere to go and no one advocating for them in some situations and circumstances. They're being exploited in some situations and circumstances."
Wallace said he is concerned about safety given some of the outrage and the publication of the building's address.
The Chattanooga Police Department said it maintains awareness about potential areas of concern or vulnerability but has not received a request for service from the location.
On Monday afternoon, Hamilton County Schools released a statement supporting the right for all children to receive an education after an internal email asked principals to register the children regardless of whether they had proof of residency, an immunization record or proof of guardianship. The district cited the 1982 Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe in which the court ruled that a state cannot deny a student free public education because of immigration status.
"The McKinney-Vento Act of 1987 is federal law that also speaks to the role of a public school system in educating unaccompanied youth, which includes migrant children," the statement said. "We will continue to uphold our duty to follow the law in providing a safe, welcoming environment for all children in Hamilton County."
During its Monday afternoon work session, members of the Hamilton County school board said the full impact of the new students is unknown because the district does not yet know the number of students who will need education. Several of the board members said they learned about the news on Monday.
Rhonda Thurman, the District 1 board member, said she is concerned whether the district could handle more students given the learning gaps created by pandemic-related school closures. Thurman said she needs to advocate for tax-paying families in the county.
"If we can take these other ones in and it doesn't fit an unfair burden on somebody, then that's fine," she said. "But those are the people who have paid the taxes to build these schools and to fund this school system and to pay our salaries and your salaries and everybody else's salary. I will never apologize for looking out for those children first. We say children first. Well, it's Hamilton County children first for me."
Multiple presidential administrations have struggled with issues surrounding immigration and caring for children, Wallace said.
"I just believe America is better than that," Wallace said. "I believe our nation is better than that. I believe Chattanooga is the kind of city that can demonstrate compassion while we still demand more from our leaders and we demand more from our system."
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.
This story was updated at 6:50 p.m. on Monday, April 12, with more information.