Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, speaking Friday at the Ocoee River in Polk County, again expressed frustration about the movement of migrant children through Tennessee — although his own cabinet is saying the state has no authority to investigate a federal shelter in Chattanooga.
"We were asked to accept unaccompanied minors and we declined that because we were very concerned about the human trafficking of children," Lee told reporters. "In spite of our declaration there, the federal government with no transparency has moved these children to our state. That is a real problem."
But in a June 3 letter, four commissioners in Lee's executive branch said Tennessee will not investigate the Chattanooga shelter housing migrant children because the state does not have the authority or any information that, under state law, would trigger additional scrutiny of the facility.
The letter to Tennessee House Government Operations Committee Chairman John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, said there are no reports of child abuse at the facility and that while states are impacted by federal immigration policies, "states have very little control over the movement of illegal immigrants who are subject to immigration proceedings in federal courts."
Last month, Ragan asked the commissioners to investigate the Chattanooga shelter and provide more information about the children coming into Tennessee and whether they were victims of human trafficking or posed a health risk to Tennessee residents.
In their letter, the commissioners of the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, Department of Education, Department of Health and Department of Safety & Homeland Security told Ragan the shelter met all state requirements for health and safety and cited federal policies regarding how children who enter the United States illegally are provided medical care and screened for being victims of human trafficking. The state is limited in its knowledge of federal contracts related to transporation of the children, they said.
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 on May 25.
In Gov. Lee’s May 11 letter to the presidential administration, he and other governors wrote, “The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services called upon many of our states to identify potential housing locations for migrants. In addition, the Department circumvented our states altogether by asking private organizations and nonprofits to house unaccompanied migrant children. Often these facilities lack adequate security. Allowing the federal government to place a potentially unlimited number of unaccompanied migrant children into our states’ facilities for an unspecified length of time with almost zero transparency is unacceptable and unsustainable.” When the governor refers to “private organizations and nonprofits” does he mean shelters such as the Baptiste Group shelter in Chattanooga? If not, what kinds of organizations are housing these children without state licenses? And, if he is referring to shelters like the Baptiste Group shelter in Chattanooga, is there not a cap on the number of children that can be housed there? According to the state-approved license for the shelter in Chattanooga, the maximum occupancy is 100.
The governor’s office provided a general statement but did not address the question.
The Tennessee Department of Children's Services approved a license for the shelter in Highland Park in May 2020, and renewed the license in February 2021. Children began arriving at the facility in November 2020.
The ongoing outrage over migrant children in the state was not sparked until last month, when WRCB aired video of children getting off an airplane in Chattanooga to be placed with a sponsor or be transported to a shelter until a sponsor could be found.
The footage sparked strong words from Lee and members of Tennessee's congressional delegation, who proposed a bill that would make the federal government notify governors and local leaders when children were being transported through an area.
Letter from Tennessee Commissioners to John RaganView
Lee has accused the federal government of ignoring his request not to house unaccompanied minors in the state.
In a May 11 letter to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, Lee and 19 other governors said the Department of Health and Human Services asked states to identify locations to house children. The governors who signed the letter said they declined that request but the federal government "circumvented our states altogether by asking private organizations and nonprofits to house unaccompanied migrant children."
However, it is unclear whether the governor is accusing the federal government of operating unlicensed care facilities in the state or whether he is referring to moving migrant children into federally-funded facilities like the one in Chattanooga, which had been approved for use a year earlier.
Last week, the Times Free Press asked Lee's office to provide clarity to this question about what the governor meant in his May 11 letter. The governor's office did not provide a response.
Laine Arnold, communications director for the governor's office, said in an email last week the state plays a regulatory role for facilities like the shelter in Chattanooga. The state ensures health codes are upheld and that the building is safe for children.
"The federal government determines which children are housed," Arnold said in an email. "The state has no role in this determination because it is a federal contract."
Under federal immigration policy, shelters like the one in Chattanooga must adhere to all state regulations. In Tennessee, that includes providing monthly statistical reports to the state about the number of children housed in the facility and making all records about the occupants available to the state upon request.
Tennessee, according to state law, can limit the number of children allowed in a facility regardless of whether there is enough physical space for them. In February, the state Department of Children's Services expanded the maximum occupancy for the Chattanooga facility from 50 to 100 children.
Contact Wyatt Massey at email@example.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.