Rep. Hakeem terms committee on refugee issues ‘extreme partisan effort’

Number of unaccompanied minors in Tennessee lower in Biden term than under Trump

A little girl holds her mother's hand at a 2017 demonstration for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)
A little girl holds her mother's hand at a 2017 demonstration for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A partisan committee formed by the House and Senate speakers will evaluate the impact of migrant children the federal government is bringing to Tennessee, even though figures show no significant increase since President Joe Biden took office.

The Study Committee on Refugee Issues, which is spurred by reports about unaccompanied minors being brought to the Chattanooga airport recently early in the morning, will look at the number of unaccompanied minors and refugee children being brought to the state for permanent residency or before relocation to other states. The committee will also examine the financial effect and other factors of bringing the children to Tennessee, according to a letter from House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally.

Some children are being housed, at least temporarily by the Baptiste Group in Chattanooga, until they can be placed with relatives, according to reports. A state agency renewed a license by the Baptiste Group as late as February 2021 to accept unaccompanied minors and refugees, but a contract to take the children is between the organization and the federal government.

Federal figures show, however, the state has been accepting unaccompanied minors for years with no clear uptick in the number since President Joe Biden took office in late January.

Nevertheless, Sexton and McNally announced they will be forming the study group in an effort to combat the influx of child immigrants.

The Tennessee General Assembly lost a suit against the federal government in 2016 to reshape refugee resettlement. Attorney General Herb Slatery refused to take the case, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals shot the case down and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear it.  

“When the federal government abdicates its responsibility to control our borders, states must step in. Through ineffectiveness, inattention, and incompetence, the Biden Administration has allowed our borders to be overrun,” McNally said in a statement.

The Oak Ridge Republican pointed out the Tennessee General Assembly filed suit against the federal government in 2016 in an effort to reshape refugee resettlement and noted the study committee “reaffirms that there is a clear and compelling state interest in a sane immigration policy.” The state lost that lawsuit in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals after Attorney General Herbert Slatery refused to take the case, and the Supreme Court declined to hear it.

The Refugee Resettlement Program, which is run by Catholic Charities in Tennessee, is separate from the Southern border situation and typically deals with people who come here from war-torn countries or as political refugees. Still, McNally is adamantly opposed to Biden policies, even after the president dialed back some of his immigration proposals.

“Everyone coming into this country should be properly screened and vetted and there must be openness, transparency and communication between the federal government and Tennessee about how many refugees, migrants and immigrants are entering Tennessee, where they are coming from and where they are going,” McNally said in the statement.

Republicans have criticized the Biden Administration for months over its immigration policy, calling the situation at the Mexican border a “crisis.”

Rep. Yusef Hakeem, D-Chattanooga (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Yusef Hakeem, D-Chattanooga (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

  I think it's heartless and lacks the Christian ideals that members of that group profess. To put a vulnerable group of people in your cross-hairs for political reasons is unconscionable   – Rep. Yusef Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, on a legislative committee to examine refugee children coming to Tennessee.

According to federal figures, though, the number of unaccompanied children coming to Tennessee and the United States doesn’t appear to be significantly higher this year than it has been for the last seven years. 

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the federal Administration for Children & Families, reports 27,417 unaccompanied minors came to the United States from October 2020 through April 2021. That’s a big jump from 16,837 the previous year, which was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic but much lower than in 2018-19 when 72,837 unaccompanied minors entered the country in the midst of President Donald Trump’s administration.

During Trump’s first two years in office, the nation admitted nearly 42,500 and 34,955 unaccompanied children, the report shows. But under the administration of President Barack Obama, only 27,840 unaccompanied minors entered the United States in 2014-15, though that number nearly doubled the next year when nearly 52,150 came to the country. 

Tennessee, meanwhile, saw 1,111 unaccompanied minors from October 2020 through April 2021, 510 the previous year, 2,191 in 2018-19, 1,173 in 2017-18, 1,066 in 2016-17, 1,354 in 2015-16 and 765 in 2014-15, according to the federal report.

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, a Chattanooga Democrat, questioned the motive of the study committee, including the decision to keep Democrats from serving, calling it an “extreme partisan effort that gives red meat to their base.”

“I think it’s heartless and lacks the Christian ideals that members of that group profess,” Hakeem said. He added the move does not represent the “goodness” of Tennessee and “to put a vulnerable group of people in your cross-hairs for political reasons is unconscionable.”

Hakeem pointed out if Republican leaders had read the contract and policies, they would understand they are the same as under former President Trump. He noted the number of unaccompanied appears to be lower under the Biden Administration than under the Trump presidency.

Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, photographed by John Partipilo on the Tennessee Capitol.
Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, photographed by John Partipilo on the Tennessee Capitol.

  We must have transparency to address the concerns raised by both members of the General Assembly and Tennesseans. I am in agreement with Gov. Lee not to accept any unaccompanied migrant children.   – Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville

Despite those numbers, Speaker Sexton slammed the Biden Administration.

“President Biden campaigned on transparency; instead his administration continues to withhold critical information from our elected members and our taxpayers about the resettlement of unaccompanied migrant children in Tennessee communities. Gov. (Bill) Lee and other governors have requested additional information on this situation to no avail from President Biden,” Sexton said in a statement. “We must have transparency to address the concerns raised by both members of the General Assembly and Tennesseans. I am in agreement with Gov. Lee not to accept any unaccompanied migrant children. I appreciate Lt. Gov. McNally, as well as all those serving on the study committee for their partnership in shining a light on the federal government’s secretive immigration practices.”

Serving on the committee will be Republican Reps. Dan Howell of Cleveland, Bruce Griffey of Paris, Ryan Williams of Cookeville, Scotty Campbell of Mountain City and Chris Todd of Jackson and Republican Sens. Dawn White of Murfreesboro, Bo Watson of Hixson, Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, Richard Briggs of Knoxville and Ed Jackson of Jackson. Howell and White, an outspoken opponent of allowing immigrant children to pay in-state tuition as well as sanctuary city policies, will chair the panel.

Gov. Lee recently tweeted that the Biden Administration should “secure the border & stop scattering children across the country.” He told reporters last week the state declined the president’s request to accept unaccompanied minors.

Asked last week what changed his mind about the license for Baptiste Group and accepting unaccompanied minors, the governor said the children taken to the Baptiste Group center are refugees. McNally and Sexton, however, cited the landing of those unaccompanied minors at the Chattanooga airport as one of the reasons for creating the study committee.

Lee, who refused to acknowledge a change in policy, also went as far as to say this is an example of “human trafficking” that can be stopped only by controlling the flow of immigration at the border.

Hakeem sees it a different way.

“The change is that, in my view, is that Joe Biden is now the president and even though the guidelines are the same as that under the Trump administration they find fault with it. And I think that is disingenuous to see it OK under one administration and not another,” he said.

The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition took a more conciliatory tone, saying the state has a long history of “welcoming” children before they reunite with family and loved ones in the United States.

“When vulnerable children arrive at our borders, our nation has a legal and moral obligation to make sure that they are safely and securely sheltered while working to get them into the homes of those that love them as quickly as possible,” said Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, TIRRC executive director. “We welcome the opportunity to speak with the recently formed committee to discuss the asylum process and how we can live up to our highest values of being a beacon of hope for those fleeing danger and persecution.”