Tennessee's special legislative committee studying the presence and movement of unaccompanied migrant children is requesting testimony from representatives of the organization housing migrant children in Chattanooga and the Highland Park church that leased the building to be used as a shelter.
In their first meeting, members of the Study Committee on Refugee Issues discussed the scope of the investigation and criticized the Biden administration for undoing Trump-era immigration policies and not providing more transparency about the movement of migrants.
Members suggested individuals or organizations they want to invite to testify on the issue, including among others the Baptiste Group, which operates the migrant shelter in Chattanooga through a federal contract; Redemption to the Nations Church, the Highland Park house of worship that leased the building being used as a shelter; and the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, which first licensed the facility in May 2020.
Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said he would invite the organizations in his region but cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
"I'll be glad to invite the Baptiste Group, but if I was them I wouldn't want to come here to this committee because of the already preconceived ideas," Gardenhire said.
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, formed the special committee last month amid weeks of outrage about the movement of unaccompanied migrant children through Southeast Tennessee. The committee is tasked with studying the movement of migrant children in the state and finding ways to increase transparency.
The all-Republican committee has been criticized by other elected officials like State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, who called the committee an "extreme partisan effort."
Gardenhire also requested the committee hear from a human trafficking expert and get Federal Aviation Administration records about the flights coming to Chattanooga, and other Tennessee cities, to drop off unaccompanied children. Some people pointed to the late-night flights as a sign of a cover-up, Gardenhire said, but it could have been the case that the flights made previous stops and were delayed.
"Before we throw these accusations around, I think we ought to look at the flight plans and see exactly why they came in at night," he said.
According to Gardenhire, the first plane to arrive in Chattanooga carried eight children.
The Chattanooga facility received national attention last month as the governor and members of the state's Congressional delegation expressed outrage that children were moving into the facility without prior notice. Members of Congress drafted legislation that would require more transparency, and Gov. Bill Lee accused the president of participating in human trafficking.
Before the outrage was sparked by a WRCB video showing the children traveling, Lee's own Department of Children's Services licensed the shelter in May 2020 and renewed the license in February 2021. Children began arriving at the Chattanooga shelter in November 2020.
Under state guidelines, DCS can limit the number of children allowed in a child care facility regardless of the facility's capacity. The initial license for the Chattanooga shelter was for up to 50 children ages 12 to 17. In February, the state expanded the capacity to up to 100 children.
As of Monday, there were 39 children at the facility, according to data from DCS.
During the Friday meeting, Gardenhire said there is an immigration crisis under President Biden but he reminded other lawmakers the facility was approved and children began arriving in Chattanooga under President Donald Trump.
"When they mention being approved in May of 2020, Trump was president at that time and Governor Lee was [governor]. If my memory serves me correctly, they were Republicans, not Democrats," Gardenhire said.
Unaccompanied migrant children who cross the border are initially in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, which have three days to move them away from a temporary border shelter to a shelter run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Children stay in ORR shelters 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 facility again drew attention this week when DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols told lawmakers state and federal authorities are investigating the operation for potential child abuse after a report of a child witnessing potential misconduct.
On Thursday, the Chattanooga Police Department said a 16-year-old boy went missing from the shelter earlier this week.
In response to the two incidents, Senators Bill Hagerty and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Representative Chuck Fleischmann of Ooltewah requested a hearing with Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to discuss the safety of children.
"This allegation of abuse and the missing child individually raise urgent questions that demand immediate answers regarding the steps HHS is taking to ensure the safety and well-being of [unaccompanied children] in this Chattanooga facility," the lawmakers wrote in their letter to Becerra.
Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said in a statement the state lawmakers in the special committee need to recognize the dangerous conditions children are forced to leave to seek safety in the United States.
"Recognizing the extreme vulnerability of these children, the unaccompanied children program has operated for more than a decade under multiple presidential administrations to place kids in specialized care and reunite them with loved ones," Sherman-Nikolaus said in a statement Friday.
"For years, Tennesseans have opened up their doors to provide loving and supportive homes for these kids. We should be working with agencies and the federal government to ensure these children and their families have the support they need to grow and thrive. We look forward to working with the committee to clarify any misinformation and ensure that every child on American soil is treated with dignity and compassion."
During the Friday meeting, none of the committee members suggested inviting a representative from Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition to testify.
Representative Dan Howell, R-Cleveland and chair of the committee, said the group cannot let emotions get in the way of its fact-finding mission.
"When emotions get involved and you're doing a study, a debate or trying to resolve an issue, it's difficult to do that when you go strictly by your emotions," Howell said. "When emotions take over a debate, that situation usually deteriorates, falls apart and nothing gets done. We cannot let that happen."
Contact Wyatt Massey at email@example.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.