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This Jan. 8, 2020, photo shows the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Tennessee's special legislative committee investigating immigration got its first look at the financial costs of unaccompanied minors in the state during a hearing Tuesday.

Krista Lee Carsner, executive director of the Fiscal Review Committee, told the lawmakers she could only provide estimates with "a lot of assumptions" to some of the special committee's financial questions about the costs of educating and insuring migrant children.

Migrant children, either housed in a shelter or in the custody of a sponsor, are not eligible for TennCare until they meet citizenship requirements, which are decided through immigration court proceedings that can take around two years.

If children become legal U.S. citizens, they could then qualify for TennCare, a government health insurance program for mostly low-income children, pregnant women, parents or caretakers of minor children and those who are elderly or have a disability.

TennCare and the schools are not keeping track of how many children were previously undocumented but now legally qualify, Carsner told the Times Free Press on Friday.

"There's no way for us to actually know this many of these children are actually in Tennessee schools. It's similar with TennCare," she said. "If they go through the immigration process and are somehow legalized within the country, then they would qualify for TennCare at that point. Well, TennCare is not going to ask them what their background is."

To get some kind of estimate for the state, the Fiscal Review Committee used national estimates on the migrant population.

Around 70% of unauthorized children are deported or voluntarily elect to deport, Carsner said. The committee used this figure to estimate the number of children who could access TennCare in Tennessee given the number of children placed with sponsors in Tennessee since the 2015 fiscal year.

Between October 2020 and May 2021, 1,775 unaccompanied minors were released to sponsors in Tennessee. The fiscal year ends in September and the current single-year high in the past six fiscal years was 2,191 children in 2018-19, according to data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Nearly half, 47%, of all children under age 18 in the state are enrolled in TennCare, Carsner said. This figure was used to further narrow the estimate for the number of children accessing TennCare who were previously unauthorized and unaccompanied.

This estimated population was then multiplied by the average TennCare cost per child, which the state pays about a third of. Over a 13-year period — the length of time it would take all current unaccompanied children to age out of the program — the insurance program would cost the state an average of $85,100 a year, with the highest single-year cost being $223,900.

According to Tennessee's Division of TennCare, the state's Medicaid program serves around 1.5 million residents and the state appropriates $4.1 million for the program.

Dr. Michele Pickett, executive director of LifeSpring Community Health, said there is a general misconception that unauthorized children and families can access federal insurance programs. LifeSpring is a faith-based clinic that serves uninsured, underinsured and other vulnerable populations.

When families do not have health insurance, they often delay or avoid care or they pay the entire cost themselves, Pickett said.

"What I think people don't realize is that there are children in our community who have no access to health care unless it comes out of their pocket," she said.

Similar to health insurance coverage, specific data on school enrollment is not tracked for this population of children, Carsner said.

But, using similar estimates, the fiscal review committee estimated the cost to the state of educating unaccompanied minors over a 15-year period averaged out to $3.9 million a year with a single-year high of $13.9 million.

Tennessee spends $5.6 billion on K-12 education, according to the state's 2021-22 budget.

The state formed a special committee to investigate immigration in May after news broke that unaccompanied children were being housed in a shelter in Chattanooga before being placed with sponsors. The state had approved a license for the facility in May 2020 and children began arriving in November 2020, but a video of children getting off a plane in Chattanooga in May sparked outrage and calls for an investigation.

The state shut down the Chattanooga shelter this month over concerns about possible child abuse at the facility.

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

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