Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty

U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty

For the past few weeks, Tennessee Republicans have grown outraged, triggered by their sudden knowledge of a program initiated by Republican President Donald Trump’s administration and repeatedly approved by Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s administration. 

The current conflagration started when a Chattanooga television station aired footage of unaccompanied migrant children being offloaded from an airplane as they were to be transferred to a local processing and holding facility. (Others were transferred from Chattanooga to other states.) That kicked off a series of angry letters and cries for transparency from Lee (again, whose administration signed off on the facility) and other Tennessee Republicans, who blame Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden. 

“These reports raise many questions that need to be answered, but the basic question that must be answered is whether the federal government is using Tennessee as a central location for resettling [unaccompanied alien children] in the United States,” Republican Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann wrote in a May letter to Biden officials. “The citizens of Tennessee are entitled to more information. After all, their schools, hospitals and law enforcement agencies will bear the burden of this reported resettlement, which is the product of an ongoing border crisis that is making every town a border town.”

This fury led state House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, both Republicans, to appoint a joint House and Senate committee tasked with studying “refugee issues.” (The unaccompanied minors are not technically refugees.) That group, made up of only Republicans, met for the first time Friday, where they called for enhanced oversight of the Chattanooga facility for minors and a study of the potential cost to the state and local government — the federal government foots the bill for care of the kids at the facility, though if they are later placed in homes in Tennessee they could eventually enroll in local public schools.

 “We have a right to know exactly who is being brought into our state and how long they will be here,” said Republican Sen. Dawn White, a co-chair of the study committee, adding that she was “deeply troubled” by the news reports she’d seen. 

Concern about the facility has extended to the treatment of children there. One 16-year-old reportedly went missing from the facility, and The Tennessean reported that one migrant at the facility told a Tennessee Department of Children’s Services inspector that they saw an employee kiss another child housed there. 

Those are exactly the kinds of concerns state officials should be worried about, immigrant activists say — not simply the fact that the children are present in Tennessee, as they have been for years. 

“It’s really important that the children are centered in all of these discussions, and we need to remember that these kids are extremely vulnerable, and our first priority should be ensuring their safety and protection,” says Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition executive director Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus. “The unaccompanied-children program is a long-established program that has been around under multiple presidential administrations, and Tennesseans have been providing loving and supportive homes to these kids for decades.”

The committee decided to hold their next meeting on July 13 and to invite representatives from several relevant groups and government agencies to testify. 

One Tennessee Republican who was not surprised by the revelation that the federal government was temporarily holding some unaccompanied minors in Chattanooga: Todd Gardenhire, whose Senate district includes the facility. For the most part, he seems almost dumbfounded by his Republican colleagues’ reactions. 

During remarks at the study committee’s first meeting, Gardenhire sought to inject context into the discussion, responding to claims that the children were flown in “in the dead of night” by asking if, maybe, Chattanooga was simply the last stop on a long series of flights and the timing was not nefarious, and whether the types of abuse alleged at the facility are isolated or widespread. (And if it was the latter, he asked, why would we be scrutinizing this case but not the others?) He also reminded his colleagues when this all started: “By the way, Trump was president at that time.”

Gardenhire doesn’t think the Baptiste Group, which runs the site for the federal government, could get a fair hearing at the legislature because of committee members’ “preconceived notions.”

“Should the Baptiste Group pick up the phone and call Sen. Hagerty or Sen. Blackburn or Chuck Fleischmann every time a child comes in and out?” Gardenhire asked. “Should they stop what they’re doing — taking care of the child — to fill out reports? If I knew all this stuff was going on, why didn’t they? They have field representatives; I don’t. Why weren’t they involved early on? They should have known.”

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