Immigrant rights, faith groups criticize Blackburn and Hagerty stance on immigrant children

Marsha Blackburn waves her finger.
U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Immigrant-rights advocates and faith-based coalitions criticized statements by U.S. Senators Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty about housing immigrant children in Tennessee.

Reports by WRCB on Wednesday showed migrant children arriving in Hamilton County through Chattanooga’s Wilson Air Center and then boarding buses later verified to be under contract with the U.S. Department of Defense. 

Later reports showed that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) previously transported unaccompanied children to designated states where they would be placed with vetted sponsors. Data showed that from Oct. 2020 to March 2021, 717  children were released to sponsors living in Tennessee, and by late March, Hamilton County had received 66 children. 

Several other counties also received migrant children, including Shelby County and Davidson County,  the latter receiving 290 children. 

Tennessee conservatives reacted negatively to the news, with Gov. Bill Lee tweeting that he previously denied requests by the Biden Administration to house migrant children in the state.  

Hagerty expressed fears that Tennessee cities would become “border towns” if migrants continued resettling “in our communities, burdening our schools, hospitals, and law enforcement agencies, and bringing an increase in drug trafficking and human smuggling.”

Blackburn blamed the Biden Administration for the “crisis at the southern border,” and accused the federal government of secretly transporting migrant children “in the dead of night without the knowledge or permission of the communities involved.”

While conservatives were quick to blame the Biden Administration for a surge of 19,000 unaccompanied children entering the U.S., others argued that there are a myriad of factors that may have caused the surge, including ongoing instability in South America. 

Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, incoming executive director, TIRRC (Photo: TIRRC)
Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, incoming executive director, TIRRC (Photo: TIRRC)

In response, Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition officials urged conservatives to rethink their views on accepting families and children “seeking safety and protection.” Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, TIRRC’s executive director, added that Tennessee had the capacity and resources to take in asylum seekers.

“We urge Sen.Blackburn, Sen. Hagerty, and Gov. Lee to follow their morals and support a just asylum system that puts compassion and dignity first,” said Sherman-Nikolaus. 

Others criticized Lee’s previous stance on accepting refugees in Tennessee. Under the Trump administration, Lee had accepted the resettlement of refugees in the state, a move viewed negatively by Tennessee Republicans. Lee conflated his views on refugees as being different from immigrants, and noted he had spent time among refugee camps in Iraq.

While counties normally follow state regulations, federal guidelines supersede state guidelines, allowing federal agents to transport children across state lines without consent from county officials. 

Chattanooga officials said they had no input on actions done by the federal government.

Two Chattanooga pastors acknowledged migrant children were coming to the city and condemned Tennessee conservatives for being critical of housing children.    

“Now matter where we come from, the color of our skin, or our immigration status, most of us work hard for our families and want our children to have a better life,” said the Rev. Laura Becker, Pastor of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga.

“Instead of turning their backs on refugee children, our elected leaders should be inviting them to take their seat at the table in their mansions,” said the Rev. Brandon Gilvin, Pastor of First Christian Church in Chattanooga. 

The two ministers are part of the Southern Christian Coalition, a non-partisan, grassroots faith-based organization. 

Other federal representatives weighed in.

Congressman Jim Cooper, D-CD5, wrote on Twitter: “All faiths embrace the stranger, and separating children from their parents is the opposite of that. Tennessee is the Volunteer State and our state leaders should be helping @POTUS reunite families and repair the broken immigration system, not turning away children.

In a weekly email updated, Congressman Mark Green, R-CD7, wrote: “I share Tennesseans’ deep concern regarding the unaccompanied migrant children brought to Tennessee in the middle of the night without our knowledge and consent. I spoke with Governor Lee and my colleagues in Congress—we will continue to work together to address this situation. Tennessee will not become a border state! ”