Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee repeatedly criticized the Biden administration approach to immigration last week, saying the current president has created the problem of a record number of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
"This is a policy of an open border that incentivizes the human trafficking of children and it should absolutely be stopped," Lee said at a May 24 news conference. "And the way it would be stopped is to secure the border."
Earlier this month, Lee was among 20 governors who wrote to the Biden administration about the lack of transparency surrounding the movement of migrant children in the states and that the facilities housing them "lack adequate security."
"We have neither the resources nor the obligation to solve the federal government's problem and foot the bill for the consequences of this Administration's misguided actions," the governors wrote.
Shelters such as the one in Chattanooga are federally funded and provide on-site education services and medical care.
Much of the current federal policy overseeing unaccompanied minors, including the shelter process playing out in Southeast Tennessee, was passed into law with bipartisan support in 2008 under President George W. Bush. The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 ended the adult detention model for children and placed them in federally funded shelters, which include on-site education and medical care, until sponsors could be found.
While the Biden administration is allowing immigration proceedings for children to continue, which critics say is fueling the record number of border crossings, President Joe Biden has not lifted several controversial 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.
Total monthly deportation numbers have dropped since Biden took office, but the number of expulsions using the COVID-19 health order far eclipsed the number of expulsions under former President Donald Trump. In April, nearly 110,000 people were expelled using the order compared to Trump's final months in office when between 60,000 and 63,000 people were expelled a month, according to data from Customs and Border Patrol.
In two of the three fiscal years in which Trump served as president and did not overlap with another commander in chief, more unaccompanied migrant children were placed with a sponsor in Hamilton County than what Biden is projected to place during his first year in office.
According to HHS data, in fiscal year 2018, 141 children were placed with sponsors in Hamilton County. In fiscal year 2019, 234 children were placed in the county. In fiscal year 2020, when more than half of the year included coronavirus-related border closures, 53 children were placed with sponsors in the county.
Through the first six months of fiscal year 2021, about half of which was under the Biden administration, 66 children have been placed with sponsors in Hamilton County.
Similarly, in fiscal year 2019, nearly 2,200 children were placed with sponsors in Tennessee. For the first half of fiscal year 2021, 717 children have been placed in Tennessee.
On Monday, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said his department was ramping up operations, including expanding shelter capacity and the number of shelters after Trump cut funding for related programs during his final months as president.
"We've made tremendous progress in being able to care for all the kids that are coming into our custody from Customs and Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security, and we're getting the job done," Becerra said. "That's to say we are caring for children responsibly. We have a legal and moral obligation to provide that safe, healthy environment that I spoke of."
Contact Wyatt Massey at email@example.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.