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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Tennessee Governor Bill Lee listens to reporter's questions during a press availability at the Middle Put-in on the Ocoee River. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee visited the Ocoee River, on June 4, 2021, to celebrate the impact of tourism and also in celebration of the state's 225th birthday.

In recent weeks, Tennessee officials have voiced a flurry of accusations that the Biden administration is taking part in, or assisting, human trafficking with its immigration policies, specifically when it comes to unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the United States.

Gov. Bill Lee said he declined a Biden administration request to house unaccompanied minors in Tennessee in March because, as he said last week, the state was "very concerned about the human trafficking of children."

Lee's communications director, Laine Arnold, told the Times Free Press the Biden administration's movement of unaccompanied children to federally funded shelters like the one in Chattanooga is like human trafficking.

"Accounts that children are being flown into our state on chartered planes, in the dead of night, with no explanation or accounting from federal agencies sounds shockingly akin to human trafficking," Arnold said in a May 26 email to the Times Free Press.

Tennessee Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, with U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, issued a news release last month to speak out "against Biden administration trafficking migrant children to Tennessee."

It is not clear to what extent GOP leaders believe the administration of President Joe Biden is trafficking children, which typically entails taking minors by violence or coercion and forcing them into sex work or other kinds of labor for profit.

However, a survey released last month by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute found that 23% of Republicans believe "the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation." That tenet of the QAnon conspiracy theory was believed by 14% of independents and 8% of Democrats.

The event precipitating the recent concerns by Tennessee officials was a WRCB-TV Channel 3 video showing the children traveling, some to a shelter in Chattanooga. The Highland Park shelter was set up under a federal contract and began operating under the administration of former President Donald Trump and was licensed last year by Lee's administration, which renewed the license in February.

The Tennessee officials have also said Biden immigration policies — such as allowing unaccompanied children to stay in the country while awaiting court proceedings — are encouraging children to come to the country, therefore putting them at risk of being exploited along the way. Speaking on Fox News last month, Lee told host Sean Hannity, "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."

Immigration experts and organizations focused on helping trafficking victims say the rhetoric tends to misuse the term "human trafficking" and confuse the issue.

The federal government is not known to be recruiting or holding children for forced exploitation. The stated reason for the transportation of the children is to unite them with vetted sponsors across the country. Most of the children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border come on their own or they are smuggled — which is different from being trafficked.

According to the Office of the Administration for Children & Families, trafficking victims are forced or coerced into labor or sex and do not need to be physically moved across borders to be a trafficking victim. Smuggling, by contrast, means moving individuals across borders illegally and involves the individual's consent to being moved since it is a business transaction between the individual and the smuggler.

Eskinder Negash, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said despite the distinct differences, the terms are often mixed up much like how refugees are sometimes confused with migrants.

The federal government is following its own immigration policies to help people seeking asylum in this country, Negash said.

"This is not a trafficking program," he said. "The migration is people coming in asking for asylum. This has been going on for years in this country. People always come to ask for asylum because they have a well-founded fear of persecution from their government, because of their religion or political affiliation."

(READ MORE: Refugee, migrant shelters for children referenced in Tennessee debate are separate under federal rules)

Both smuggling and trafficking are crimes, but smuggling is a crime against a nation for breaking immigration laws, whereas trafficking is a crime against a person's human rights.

According to Office of Refugee Resettlement policy, "a child who was smuggled into the United States could have been trafficked while they were smuggled or smuggled as part of a trafficking scheme, but being smuggled does not automatically make the child a victim of trafficking."

Kids in Need of Defense, an advocacy group for unaccompanied children, said trafficking and smuggling are terms often confused by government officials and members of the media, despite having different legal definitions, according to a 2019 report on the issue.

"Failure to recognize the difference between smuggling and trafficking can lead to exaggerated and misleading claims about the prevalence of trafficking at the border and unhelpful policy responses," the KIND report reads.

State officials have criticized the federal government for weeks for its handling of unaccompanied minors. 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.

Children who arrive at the border are screened to determine whether they are victims of labor or sex trafficking, according to Office of Refugee Resettlement policy. In cases of potential trafficking, a report is sent to the Department of Homeland Security and additional care services are implemented for the child.

(READ MORE: More migrant children placed with sponsors in Hamilton County and Tennessee in previous years than projected for Biden's first year)

Biden allowed immigration proceedings for children to resume, though the president has not lifted several Trump immigration policies related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including expelling people who cross the border illegally to Mexico or their home countries over fears of spreading the virus in the United States.

Previously, unaccompanied children were told to wait in Mexico until their immigration cases could be heard in the United States. Advocacy groups, such as KIND or Human Rights Watch, have argued these policies make children vulnerable to violence or sexual exploitation in the Mexican border towns where those seeking asylum may not have friends or family.

"The children that are coming from Central America are coming because they have a well-founded fear because of gang violence and neglect," Negash said. "They're coming asking for asylum."

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

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