Editor’s column: Lee is either ignorant or dishonest in migrant children situation

May 28, 2021 5:00 am
Gov. Bill Lee at a plant dedication Humboldt, Tennessee in March, pictured with plant workers. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Gov. Bill Lee at the dedication of a Tyson chicken plant in Humboldt, Tennessee in March, pictured with plant workers. Tyson Foods has said it will require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo: John Partipilo)

In this week’s manufactured crisis, I give you the situation of unaccompanied migrant children being transported to shelter in Chattanooga. 

To hear Tennessee’s Republican leaders, the kids were snuck into our fair state in the dead of night, with no consultation with local leaders and against explicit warnings to the Biden administration that we don’t need no more stinkin’ kids here. 

Gov. Bill Lee tweeted in a May 20 thread, that “Weeks ago, we declined the Biden Administration’s request to house unaccompanied minors & called on the administration to secure the border & stop scattering children across the country.”

Both our U.S. senators, Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, leapt into action the same day, and together with Chattanooga-area Congressman Chuck Fleischmann, R-CD 3, sent a letter to the U.S. secretaries of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security asking for information on the four plane loads of children who arrived in Chattanooga.

On Thursday, the trio sent out a press release announcing they’ve introduced the Migrant Resettlement Transparency Act, which “which requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) to consult in advance with state and local officials of impacted jurisdictions regarding federally administered or funded migrant resettlement.”

There was a lot in the press release I could quibble with, but I’ll stick to one point: If the senators and congressman want transparency, they should direct their first effort to seek clarity toward Lee. 

Gov. Bill Lee had stern words for the Biden administration, saying Tennessee wants no part of migrant children in need. In fact, Lee said in Dec. 2019 the state would continue to accept the children and in 2020 approved a Chattanooga facility for housing them.

Wyatt Massey, a reporter with the Chattanooga Times Free Press, published a story Wednesday that revealed either Lee has really bad memory or he’s disingenuous. Massey reported the Lee administration not only approved a license for a Chattanooga shelter to house unaccompanied migrant children a year ago, but that the shelter has been providing housing to migrant children since November 2020 — six months ago. 

This reminds me of the possibly apocryphal story of a basketball coach who once asked a player: “Son, are you ignorant or apathetic?” to which the player responded, “Coach, I don’t know and I don’t care.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, unaccompanied minors have been coming to Tennessee since 2014. And our own Senior Reporter Anita Wadhwani covered the issue when she was with the Tennessean, writing in 2014 about a Honduran boy who made his way to his aunt in Nashville and listing the five counties in which 50 or more migrant children were housed. 

Lee is either ignorant of these facts or he doesn’t care enough to make correct statements and neither ignorance nor dishonesty is a desirable trait in a leader. 

The United States and Tennessee have always been, since the very founding of our nation, a shining beacon of freedom and opportunity for the persecuted and oppressed, particularly those suffering religious persecution.

– Gov. Bill Lee in Dec. 2019

And there’s more. 

Lee’s communications director, Laine Arnold, had the unenviable task of telling Massey that just because the administration approved the Baptiste Group, a federal contractor, to house the current crop of kids doesn’t mean Lee and Company knew migrant kids would actually be there.

Weeks ago, we declined the Biden Administration's request to house unaccompanied minors & called on the administration to secure the border & stop scattering children across the country.

– Gov. Bill Lee, May 2021

In a emailed statement, Arnold said, “(The Department of Children’s Services) does not hold a contract for child placement at Baptiste, nor does the department determine what services Baptiste group will deliver, or to whom, under their federal contract with Health and Human Services.”

Massey obtained the application the Baptiste Group made to the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. It explicitly states, “This contract is to provide housing, personal care, supervision and monitoring to up to 100 unaccompanied minor children . . . ideally up to 30 days, until they are reunited with a sponsor home or appear at an immigration hearing.”

And finally, all this comes as a big flip-flop after Lee announced in December 2019 Tennessee would happily accept refugee children. At the time, he used lofty terms in describing why he would work with the Trump administration:  “The United States and Tennessee have always been, since the very founding of our nation, a shining beacon of freedom and opportunity for the persecuted and oppressed, particularly those suffering religious persecution.”

I’m not sure what changed his mind, be it a Democratic presidential administration or the disapproval of Tennessee Republican legislative leaders, but at every step of this process, in one way or another, he’s signed off on us opening our doors to these children. 

Instead of gadding about the Republican Governors Association conference in Nashville this week and getting face time with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Lee would be better off searching his conscience and his files, the former to divine why Tennessee wouldn’t take in unaccompanied children in need and the latter to get his stories straight. 


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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. She has served as political analyst for WZTV Fox 17 and provided communications consulting for political campaigns at all levels, from city council to presidential. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.