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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn takes part in a ceremony at the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center on Friday, March 19, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Immigration advocates and researchers are pushing back against the claims of some Tennessee elected officials who are concerned about unaccompanied migrant children being transported through the Chattanooga airport to shelters in the region.

Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said in a statement that Tennessee officials must stop attacking children seeking safety in the United States.

"We need to protect vulnerable children. Period," Sherman-Nikolaus said. "It is the right thing to do, and our laws require nothing less. We have the capacity, resources, and can do anything we decide we want to do, including protecting vulnerable children and families in need. It's time to come together as a nation to reject cruelty and center the well-being of children and families."

On Thursday, Republican Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, along with U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, issued a letter to the secretaries of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security saying the lawmakers are "deeply troubled by the lack of transparency and accountability regarding the conditions that HHS is subjecting the children to."

The record numbers of unaccompanied children crossing the border have raised concerns about health and safety at some temporary shelters, where there are issues of overcrowding.

This week, video and details emerged about migrant children apparently moving through Chattanooga's airport to be transported by bus throughout the Southeast. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees the Department of Health and Human Services program, said in a statement that various modes of transportation are used to move unaccompanied children across the country so they can be placed with a vetted sponsor, usually a relative.

Tennessee's members of Congress wrote in their letter that local communities, specifically schools and hospitals, "bear the burden of this reported resettlement."

Chiara Galli, a postdoctoral fellow of sociology at Cornell University who studies migration and asylum policy, said this is a misread of how the federal immigration system works. Shelters housing unaccompanied minors are state-licensed and federally funded, which includes providing on-site education and medical care. When a sponsor for a child is found, the sponsors are the ones paying for the child's plane ticket, Galli said.

"It's actually not the case that these shelters drain local resources," Galli said. "On the contrary, they actually create jobs for the people who work there."

In April, local job listings for social workers and teachers helped draw attention to an organization housing unaccompanied minors in Chattanooga in an unused building owned by Redemption to the Nations Church.

Fleischmann, in a statement to the Times Free Press, said Biden administration border policies are failing and he remains concerned about resettlement processes during the surge of recent arrivals.

"HHS has seemed unable or unwilling to tell members of Congress and local officials when they plan to move migrant children into a community," Fleischmann said in a statement. "They do not provide information regarding how many migrants are being housed or transported through those communities."

Tennessee approved the Baptiste Group to run the Chattanooga shelter in May 2020 and re-approved the license in February 2021. According to state licensing standards, care facilities must have one staff member for each eight children and provide monthly reports to the state. The Baptiste Group, according to state records, can house up to 100 migrant children between the ages of 12 and 17.

According to data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, between Oct. 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021, 66 children have been placed with sponsors in Hamilton County.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection can hold unaccompanied migrant children, who are not Canadian or Mexican, for three days before transferring them to the Department of Health and Human Services. The Office of Refugee Resettlement moves the children to a location in its network of shelters until a social worker can find a sponsor for the child to stay with until an immigration hearing. As of March 31, the average length of stay in a resettlement facility was 35 days, according to an HHS report on the program from May 5.

During a Friday news conference, Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said children moving through Tennessee are on their way to unite with relatives or sponsors in the state or neighboring states.

"As you know, geographically, [Tennessee] is right in a place where there's a lot of states around it, so it's a place that some flights have gone through as children are moving to other destinations," Pskai said.

Judd Deere, deputy chief of staff for communications for Hagerty, told the Times Free Press the senator is seeking more information from the Biden administration about the scope of the immigration program, specifically how many children are being sent to Tennessee.

"Elected officials in Tennessee should at least be provided basic information about what is happening in their state and the Biden administration's plans for the future — are they planning to do this indefinitely? Are there capacity limits? Will states and municipalities be consulted at all?" Deere said in an email.

Tennessee's governor and representatives drawing such focus to unaccompanied migrant children is interesting, Galli said, given what little role Tennessee plays in the nationwide immigration system. According to a September 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office, Tennessee has only one ORR-funded facility serving unaccompanied children, compared to other states like Florida with six, Virginia with eight, Michigan with nine, Texas with 52 and Arizona with 19.

However, over the past six and a half fiscal years, more than 7,700 children have been placed with a sponsor in Tennessee, the 10th-highest total in the country behind states like California, Georgia and North Carolina, according to data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

The current immigration model has largely been in effect since the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act was passed with bipartisan support and signed into law in 2008 by then-President George W. Bush.

Galli said the recent politicization of migrant children is concerning because these conversations can place targets on vulnerable children.

"It didn't used to be a political debate whether or not we should protect migrant children," Galli said. "It used to be something that we much more agreed upon on just as a basis of children's rights and feeling responsible towards other human beings."

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

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