What is the federal government's responsibility to a state when it parks unaccompanied alien children in that state?
That question seems to be at the crux of the issue of the Biden administration covertly moving illegal immigrant children into states such as Tennessee, where they eventually would be released to sponsors and disappear into the interior of the United States.
The administration, by dint of unanswered letters and no communication to state and federally elected officials, apparently believes it bears little responsibility. The state's governor, two United States senators and at least its 3rd District congressman believe it does.
To our thinking, an acknowledgement of the children's movements and an explanation of where they are, how many are there, when they leave and where they go — whatever general information is legal to give — are the ethical and moral minimums the state is owed.
However, the situation about such children in a Chattanooga facility that contracts with the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to house them has become more acute lately with the knowledge that one child went missing and one child was reportedly abused by an employee at the facility.
On Thursday, Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston said his office is joining the state and federal investigation of the Baptiste Group, the HHS-funded local organization housing the children. He said his staff would be working with the Chattanooga Police Department "and will vigorously prosecute any state crimes that are uncovered by the investigation."
A letter he sent to the Hamilton County legislative delegation further noted "there are allegations of sexual abuse," "there are 5-10 potential victims and more may be discovered," and "there are at least five suspects who are all female."
On the same day as Pinkston's letter, a third letter from U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, both R-Tenn., and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., in light of the most recent developments, was sent to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra asking for transparency and additional information.
Pushing unaccompanied alien children "into the interior of the U.S. and often releasing them to sponsors — and then neglecting to track these minors' whereabouts or compliance with immigration requirements — raises numerous questions regarding the well-being of these minors, as well as the impact on American communities," they wrote.
While the three Congress members have sponsored the Migrant Resettlement Transparency Act to guarantee such answers are provided in the future, they — and we — believe such answers should be given without the legislation.
They ask, for instance, whether follow-up visits are made to the children and how often, whether children are released to people in the U.S. illegally, whether sponsors are given background checks, whether children are being placed with sponsors who have in some way funded the illegal entry of children into the country, and whether the federal government can be sure children are not placed with persons involved with criminal elements.
All of the above questions — and there are others — go to the safety and welfare of the child. If the federal government cannot respond that it is at a minimum doing the above, how can we sanction the first steps of allowing innocent children to come into the country, be moved around in it and then sent to disappear into its interior?
Four state agencies, asked by state Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, earlier this month to respond to information about "unaccompanied minors being transported into/through Tennessee by the federal government," acknowledged that "states have very little control over the movement of illegal immigrants who are subject to immigration proceedings in federal courts."
They noted that after the state earlier this year declined state housing options for such minors, the federal HHS "Department circumvented the state altogether by contracting with private organizations and nonprofits" to house them.
Blackburn, Hagerty and Fleischmann, in their letter, also framed the bigger picture for the country.
Between March 23 and May 26, the most current period for which data is available, HHS discharged 18,342 unaccompanied minors to sponsors in the United States, they wrote. That number did not include tens of thousands of children who remain in HHS custody.
"After their release to sponsors," they said, "it is unclear what, if anything, the Department does to ensure their safety, security, and compliance with their immigration obligations. It seems clear that HHS, given its silence, is ignoring the impact on schools, hospitals, and law enforcement agencies that will bear the burden of this massive resettlement."
Meanwhile, state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a member of the legislature's summer Study Committee on Refugee Issues, said there has been too much "politicization" around the issue and said he is drafting a letter to Blackburn, Hagerty and Fleischmann with his thoughts.
At a minimum, the Biden administration should be transparent to state and local government and elected officials about what it is doing. Nothing less than the lives of innocent children should demand it.