Gov. Bill Lee said this week that federal transparency about the movement of migrant children was different under President Donald Trump, as the governor continues his criticism of federal immigration policies under President Joe Biden.
On Wednesday, while visiting a Beretta USA factory in Gallatin, Tennessee, for a ceremonial signing of a gun-rights bill, Lee said the federal government was facilitating human trafficking by moving unaccompanied children away from the border to shelters such as the one in Chattanooga's Highland Park neighborhood.
"States do not know when these unaccompanied minors are being brought into the states, and that's the biggest challenge for us," Lee said. "We have a great deal of concern about these kids and the trafficking that will continue if we don't secure the border and if the federal government doesn't provide transparency around those children, and that's what we've been after."
The governor was then asked how the current situation might be different than under Trump.
"The transparency was clearly different," Lee said. "And the issue is different because of the lack of accountability and the lack of understanding about where these children are coming from and where they're going."
Lee did not offer details about the differences in transparency between the two administrations.
According to state documents, unaccompanied children began arriving at the state-licensed shelter in Chattanooga in November 2020. Last week, the Times Free Press asked the governor's office whether the Trump administration notified the governor that children would be moved through the state and, if so, what was included in that notification.
The shelter in Chattanooga must follow state guidelines, which include sending monthly statistical reports to the state and making all records about the occupants available to the state upon request.
State inspectors in February were given access to interview the children, inspect the plumbing, review and document work histories of the employees and otherwise stay informed of the goings-on there.
Laine Arnold, communications director for the governor's office, did not provide an answer to the question about what further information was available under Trump. The state has also not provided documentation of the Trump administration's additional transparency.
In an email response, Arnold said the governor supports a bill from members of Tennessee's congressional delegation to increase federal transparency, such as requiring monthly reports from the federal government on immigrant demographics and requiring the federal government to notify governors and local leaders no less than three days before moving children through the area.
What exactly did the Times Free Press ask the governor's office?
In the past week, the Times Free Press requested more information from Gov. Bill Lee's office related to his criticism of the federal immigration program and the state-licensed shelter housing unaccompanied children in Chattanooga.
Among others, the following questions were sent in an email to Laine Arnold, communications director for the governor's office, and Casey Black, press secretary for the governor, on May 27.
According to records from the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, unaccompanied minors began arriving at the facility in Chattanooga in November 2020. Was the governor's office receiving notification of migrant children moving through the state then, under the previous presidential administration? If so, can you please provide a copy of what that notification looked like?
On May 20, the governor tweeted that he had called on the presidential administration to "stop scattering children across the country." Does the governor not agree with the ORR policy of moving children away from temporary shelters on the U.S.-Mexico border to the "least restrictive" setting in shelters, such as the one in Chattanooga, until a vetted sponsor can be found?
The governor's office provided a general statement but did not address either question.
Controversy around the presence of unaccompanied minors in the state erupted last month when WRCB-TV Channel 3 aired video of children getting off planes at the Chattanooga airport.
Unaccompanied migrant children, after they cross the border, are initially in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, which have three days to move the children away from a temporary border shelter to a less restrictive 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.
The Tennessee Department of Children's Services received a copy of the federal contract detailing a program to house unaccompanied children in Hamilton County and licensed the facility in May 2020. The state renewed the license in February 2021, months before Lee wrote on Twitter that he was calling on President Joe Biden to "to secure the border & stop scattering children across the country."
Arnold said the state's role in licensing the facility is to ensure safe conditions. The state does not determine who is housed in the building, she said.
On Wednesday, Lee again accused the federal government of facilitating human trafficking by moving unaccompanied migrant children throughout the county to be placed with a vetted sponsor.
The governor presented a similar message last week during the Republican Governors Association conference in Nashville. Speaking on Fox News to Sean Hannity, Lee said the Biden administration was disregarding the will of the people.
"Human traffickers are being paid to move children into this country across the border, and our government is facilitating the last leg of that journey. If a private company did that, it'd be a federal crime," Lee told Hannity.
Much of the current federal policy overseeing unaccompanied minors was passed into law with bipartisan support in 2008 under President George W. Bush. The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 stopped the adult detention model for children and placed them in less restrictive federally funded shelters across the country.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more unaccompanied migrant children were placed with a sponsor in Hamilton County two of the three fiscal years in which Trump served as president and did not overlap with another commander in chief than the total Biden is projected to place during his first year in office.
Last week, the Times Free Press asked Lee's office whether the governor disagreed with this Office of Refugee Resettlement policy. The governor's office did not provide an answer.
State politicians are investigating the movement of migrant children in the state. The special committee, announced last week, will look for ways to increase transparency and measure the "impact, financial and beyond, as it relates to the federal government's migrant relocation program."
Opponents of the committee, which does not involve Democrats, have called the Republican-led investigation an "extreme partisan effort that gives red meat to their base."
Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this story.
Contact Wyatt Massey at email@example.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.