Finally someone has said exactly what's needed about Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's shameful and cruel attack on vulnerable migrant children caught up in the middle of a senseless GOP feeding frenzy.
State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, has criticized a Republican-led push to study the travel of unaccompanied migrant children through Tennessee — and specifically the decision to prevent Democrats from serving on a special legislative study committee — calling it an "extreme partisan effort that gives red meat to their base."
Further, he said Lee's and GOP lawmakers' attacks and rhetoric don't represent the "goodness" of Tennessee. "To put a vulnerable group of people in your crosshairs for political reasons is unconscionable. ... I think it's heartless and lacks the Christian ideals that members of that group profess."
Two Chattanooga area state senators are on the panel — Bo Watson and Todd Gardenhire — both Republicans. Gardenhire asked to be put on the committee, and he also has been critical of other state politicians' rhetoric about the children.
"We need to separate rhetoric from the facts. We need to separate the issue of the border fiasco and how these individuals came to our border from the by-product of the children in the custody of the U.S. government," Gardenhire wrote this week in an opinion column for this paper's Free Press editorial page.
The legislative panel — dubbed the Study Committee on Refugee Issues — was spurred by initial WRCB reports about unaccompanied minors being brought to the Chattanooga airport "under cover of darkness." Its members are to look at the number of unaccompanied minors and refugee children being brought to the state for temporary shelter — including to a facility in Chattanooga's Highland Park neighborhood — or before relocation to other states. We already know that the numbers have been and will continue to be lower under the Biden administration than under the Trump administration.
The committee also will examine the financial effect and other factors of bringing the children to Tennessee, according to a letter from House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally. Never mind that the shelter, transportation, education and medical care are federally funded.
The study panel and all the rhetoric, save that from Gardenhire, is — as Hakeem aptly labeled it — "red meat to their base."
Consider the rhetoric: "When the federal government abdicates its responsibility to control our borders, states must step in. Through ineffectiveness, inattention and incompetence, the Biden administration has allowed our borders to be overrun," McNally said in a statement.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee escalated the fear-mongering, charging that the Biden administration has not been transparent and accusing the federal government of facilitating human trafficking by moving unaccompanied migrant children throughout the county to be placed with a vetted sponsor.
"States do not know when these unaccompanied minors are being brought into the states, and that's the biggest challenge for us," Lee said this week while visiting a Beretta USA factory in Gallatin, Tennessee, for a ceremonial signing of a gun rights bill. "We have a great deal of concern about these kids and the trafficking that will continue if we don't secure the border and if the federal government doesn't provide transparency around those children, and that's what we've been after."
The governor presented a similar message last week during the Republican Governors Association conference in Nashville. And speaking on Fox News to Sean Hannity, Lee said the Biden administration was disregarding the will of the people. Can we get any more "red meat" than this?
The reality is that the governor has not been transparent — especially after Tennessee's two Republican U.S. senators, Bill Hagerty and Marsha Blackburn, got out in front of him with a letter to the Biden administration crying about "illegal aliens," "human trafficking" and "zero transparency."
As we have reported again and again, Lee's administration licensed and approved the Chattanooga shelter in May 2020 when Donald Trump was president and again in February 2021 after an on-site inspection.
The most recent license, a copy of which was obtained by the Times Free Press, was signed by Jennifer Nichols, the commissioner of Tennessee's Department of Children's Services, whom Lee appointed to the position in January 2019.
During the application process, the state was provided a copy of the federal contract between the Baptiste Group and the Department of Health and Human Services, according to documents provided by the state.
"This contract is to provide housing, personal care, supervision and monitoring to up to 100 unaccompanied minor children," the charter application reads. "This facility will provide short-term care to children, ideally up to 30 days, until they are reunited with a sponsor home or appear at an immigration hearing where other arrangements are ordered."
Lee could have made some peace, offered some acknowledgments and walked some of this back. But he didn't. Instead he continues to raise the temperature.
"The transparency was clearly different [under Trump]," he said at the gun factory. "And the issue is different because of the lack of accountability and the lack of understanding about where these children are coming from and where they're going."
Asked what further information was available under Trump, neither the governor nor his office answered, nor have they provided documentation of the Trump administration's additional transparency.
Gov. Lee, this is inexcusable and embarrassing. You should apologize to the shelter, to the children and to the entire state.