Officials: Feds not alerting Tennessee about migrant kids
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The federal government will not alert Tennessee when unaccompanied migrant children are brought to the state to be placed with sponsors, officials with Gov. Bill Lee’s administration told lawmakers on Tuesday.
Brandon Gibson, Lee’s chief operating officer, says that the federal Department of Health and Human Services have largely directed her questions to information posted on government websites and policy statutes. Gibson said it’s her interpretation that the federal government could disclose information to local law enforcement about when immigrant children pass through the state, but federal officials have told her that they won’t due to privacy concerns.
“The response I got from HHS was that because of confidentiality they would not be notifying local law enforcement,” Gibson said.
HHS officials did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Gibson gave her remarks on Tuesday before a legislative panel made up of entirely of GOP members. The group is tasked with investigating refugee and immigration settlement in Tennessee after a local television station aired footage of children arriving at a Chattanooga airport and boarding buses in the middle of the night.
State officials later disclosed that a migrant child reported being abused at a Chattanooga shelter — which has helped fuel outrage among some Republicans that the federal government is hiding information from the state. That shelter’s license has since been suspended after local police arrested a staffer on charges of sexual battery by an authority figure, coercion of a witness and tampering with evidence.
Unaccompanied children who are taken into custody by Customs and Border Protection are transferred to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which shelters them until they are placed with sponsors, usually a relative.
It’s a practice that’s been taken place for years in Tennessee, but one that recently sparked criticism ahead of the 2022 midterm election as Republicans nationwide have increased criticisms of President Joe Biden’s administration handling of the border with Mexico. Lee’s office has alleged, without evidence, that the practice could enable “the trafficking of children,” which has since been repeated by Republican lawmakers — many of whom are running for reelection, including Lee.
“Many of us in Tennessee feel like we no longer have an honest broker with the current administration on refugees and the border crisis,” said state Rep. Bruce Griffey, a Republican from Paris, during Tuesday’s meeting.
Others pointed out that the state had an interest monitoring how many children are permanently placed in Tennessee because it would affect schools, health care and other services.
“It seems we should be able to determine how many are permanently residing in our state because that impacts the bottom line of the taxpayer,” said Sen. Richard Briggs, a Republican from Knoxville.
“How can we have more transparency from the federal government to accomplish this task,” Briggs added.
Tennessee’s Republican U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn virtually attended the meeting to echo similar transparency concerns.
“Tennessee did not know this was happening and we do not know how many children, school aged, are located in the communities. To my knowledge that transparency has not been allowed,” she said.