Tennessee shelter for immigrant children opened under Trump

Migrant Centers

Three young migrants hold hands as they run in the rain at an intake area after turning themselves in upon crossing the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday, May 11, 2021, in Roma, Texas. The number of unaccompanied children encountered on the U.S. border with Mexico in April eased from an all-time high a month earlier, while more adults were found coming without families, authorities said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee licensed a shelter for immigrant children a year before the state’s Republican governor and U.S. Senators began expressing outrage over unaccompanied minors being sent to Chattanooga.

Gov. Bill Lee tweeted last week that President Joe Biden’s administration needs to “secure the border & stop scattering children across the country” after a local television station aired footage of children arriving at a Chattanooga airport and boarding buses in the middle of the night. Lee noted that the state had declined an earlier request by the administration to house immigrant children in Tennessee National Guard facilities.

Unaccompanied children who are taken into custody by U.S. 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. White House press secretary Jen Psaki explained at a news conference last week that the children seen in Chattanooga were “simply on their way to unite with relatives and sponsors.”

In an email Friday, Lee spokesperson Casey Black said the governor is “concerned about the Biden Administration’s lack of transparency and failed border policies that encourage illegal immigration and enable the trafficking of children.”

Many children are temporarily housed in residential shelters such as the one in Chattanooga run by the Baptiste Group, which was licensed by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and began operating last year under then-President Donald Trump’s administration. The license application states that it will provide “housing and other services to unaccompanied minors in the Office of Refugee Resettlement custody.”

During an inspection by the department in February, there were nine children housed at the facility. The inspector wrote that the shelter was “neat, clean, and in good conditions.” The children interviewed reported “feeling safe and well taken care of.”

Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, who leads the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said it is in the best interest of the children to move them from crowded detention centers along the border. If the process seems secretive, she said, “sharing information about them only puts them at risk of harassment and violates their right to privacy.”

In response to concerns that the state does not have enough information about the immigrant children moving through Tennessee, Republican U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, along with Republican U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, introduced legislation Thursday that will “require the Administration to submit to Congress and governors a monthly, state-specific report regarding the resettlement, transportation, or relocation of illegal aliens,” according to a news release.

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