NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds are calling on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's top Republican to press for a hearing to probe what they charge is the Biden administration's "failure to provide notice and transparency" in the movement of unaccompanied minors into their states.
The letter was addressed to U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking GOP member of the Democratic-run panel.
Lee and Reynolds said both states have "faced a series of disturbing incidents involving the transport of unaccompanied children into our states, under the cover of darkness, with no advance notification."
The governors also wrote that "after significant progress to secure the border under the Trump administration, the Biden administration's failed policies have incentivized the largest surge in illegal crossings in 20 years, including the largest monthly number of unaccompanied children in history."
U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, a Judiciary Committee member, and U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, also a Tennessee Republican, said they back calls for the hearing. Blackburn, who was critical of the accompanied minors coming to the state after reports initially surfaced, sought to blame President Joe Biden, a Democrat, charging Biden's "failed immigration policies have turned every town into a border town."
Hagerty said Tennessee and other states "are seeing the real, tangible results of President Biden's total failure to solve the crisis at the border — a crisis of his own making — with the systematic resettling of migrants in our communities."
Lee's administration last year licensed a migrant shelter for children in the Highland Park neighborhood of Chattanooga, then renewed it in February. The facility can house up to 100 children, a limit that the Lee administration doubled from its original limit of 50.
The governor nevertheless began raising concerns about migrant children in Tennessee last month after WRCB aired video showing the children traveling in the state.
In December 2019, Lee also agreed to let refugees continue resettling in Tennessee, part of a program under former President Donald Trump that allowed states to opt out of accepting refugees. In defending his decision, Lee emphasized his Christian faith and told critics that Congress needed to address immigration reform because individual states "have no say in immigration policy."
While the number of unaccompanied children in federal custody has grown to record levels in recent months, more children were released to sponsors in Tennessee during fiscal year 2019 than the state is on pace to reunite now, according to U.S. Health and Human Services data, the Times Free Press has reported previously.
Between October 2018 and September 2019, 2,191 children were released to sponsors in Tennessee compared to the 717 children released between October 2020 and March 2021.
Even though his administration licensed the shelter under Trump, he has continued to focus his attention on a separate request from the Biden administration, which he says he rejected.
"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 during a recent trip to the Ocoee River in Polk County. "In spite of our declaration there, the federal government with no transparency has moved these children to our state. That is a real problem."
The governor also said that "to be clear there's a clear difference between refugees and unaccompanied minors and we've been very clear about that. These are not refugees, these are unaccompanied minors. And the biggest challenge we have is the lack of transparency."
A copy of a Tennessee Department of Children's Services inspection report dated Feb. 17, 2021, states that Georgia-based federal contractor Baptiste Group "entered a contract with the United States Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Child and Families Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR)."
It further reads "This contract is to provide housing, personal care, supervision and monitoring for up to 100 unaccompanied minor children."
Several members of the governor's cabinet said in a letter that the state has no authority to investigate a federal shelter in Chattanooga.
Earlier this month, state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican whose district includes the Baptiste-run facility and who has advocated for immigrants, wrote a Times Free Press opinion piece.
"My hope is for us to look at — as Sgt. Joe Friday from the 1950s TV show 'Dragnet' says — 'Just the facts, ma'am,' and not get caught up in the politicizing the issue of taking care of children and putting them with caring families and sponsors," he wrote.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.