Gardenhire wants facts to drive solution on unaccompanied children

By: - June 8, 2021 5:00 am
State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, center, has expressed suspicion about the suspension of the Baptiste Group. (Photo: John Partipilo)

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, (Photo: John Partipilo)

Taking a different view from firebrand conservatives, state Sen. Todd Gardenhire hopes a Study Committee of Refugee Issues will remove the “rhetoric” and use facts to decide how to handle unaccompanied children coming to Tennessee as part of a migrant wave at the Mexican border.

Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, penned an op-ed published Saturday in the Tennessee Lookout warning people that “shutting doors” to migrant children and their families will only “prolong the suffering” of youngsters by keeping them apart from family members in border detention centers rather than licensed facilities in Tennessee and across the nation.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee said last week that children are being human trafficked into the nation and into Tennessee, and he blamed the Biden Administration’s border policies. Lee previously said he declined Biden’s request to take unaccompanied minors in Tennessee. Biden is pushing for comprehensive immigration reform while softening some policies put in place by former President Donald Trump.

Uproar followed reports that a group of immigrant children landed at a Chattanooga airport early one morning in late May and are being housed at a Baptiste Group facility, which is in Gardenhire’s district.

Tens of thousands of migrant children are flooding the border, in even higher numbers than in 2014 and 2019 during periods of high child migrations, according to reports. Critics blame the Biden Administration for stopping construction of a border wall and for allowing unaccompanied children to be exempt from pandemic-related expulsions while pursuing asylum. Trump previously required those seeking asylum to stay in Mexico while awaiting decisions, but Biden changed that policy, according to reports.

Gardenhire, who requested to serve on the legislative study committee, traveled on a mission trip to a Red Zone state in Chiapas in southwest Mexico near the Guatemala border where he said he saw conditions any parent would want their children to escape.

As a result tens of thousands of children have been housed in cramped facilities designed for much smaller numbers, until the federal government started sending them across the country to stay in contracted facilities until they can be placed with family or friends.

Gardenhire said he is not certain the children are victims of human trafficking and added that is not his primary concern.

“My issue is once they get to the United States and get across that border, then what do we do with them,” Gardenhire said.

Considered a wild card of sorts in the Republican-controlled Senate, Gardenhire said neither he nor anyone else in Tennessee is in a position to know how children reached the border and got across.

“I just hope we find out what the real truth is and quit demagoguing it,” he said.

Gardenhire, who requested to serve on the legislative study committee, traveled on a mission trip to a Red Zone state in Chiapas in southwest Mexico near the Guatemala border where he said he saw conditions any parent would want their children to escape. He called it a “very moving and scary experience,” saying he made sure nobody knew he was a state senator.

Responding to criticism of parents dropping their young children over the Southern border wall, Gardenhire wrote that he was reminded of the Levite woman Jochebed who put her son adrift in the bulrushes of Egypt to save his life. He turned out to be Moses.

In serving on the committee, which is scheduled to meet June 18, Gardenhire said he hopes to eliminate “rhetoric” and come up with the facts to determine exactly what is causing a high number of border crossings as well as solutions for taking care of children when they come into the country.

Gov. Lee said two weeks ago the state had approved a license for the Baptiste Group home to accept children, but he said that facility was for refugees, people who are vetted as politically and religiously persecuted.

Yet House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally said the impetus for forming the study committee was based on reports of unaccompanied children being brought to Chattanooga.

Asked last week about the matter, Lee reiterated a “clear difference” exists between refugees and unaccompanied minors.

“And we’ve been very clear about that. These are not refugees. These are unaccompanied minors. And the biggest challenge that we have is the lack of transparency,” Lee said.

The governor contends the children are “being trafficked by the cartels,” which are being paid to traffic children and push them through the border before they are “distributed” across the country without transparency.

It is difficult to discern, however, whether more migrant children are coming to the United States and Tennessee than under the Trump Administration

Figures from the Office of Refugee Resettlement show 1,100 unaccompanied minors have been brought to Tennessee this fiscal year, from October through April, compared to 510 the previous year, preceded by 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.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement did not answer phone calls or return email messages seeking to find out what other facilities in Tennessee house unaccompanied children. 

La Casa de Sidney is a 100-bed facility run by the Baptiste Group in Chattanooga housing 62 children as of June 3, according to the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.

The state’s licensing staff found the facility to be well-staffed and in compliance with its regulations during a recent inspection, according to the DCS. 

Gov. Lee declined to address immigration numbers under the Trump Administration but said the biggest difference with the Biden Administration is “transparency.” 

“There are children that are being brought into our state we’re not being made aware of, and that’s very concerning to us,” Lee said.

La Casa de Sidney is one of several residential child-care agencies licensed by the Department of Children’s Services but not under contract with the state. Others include centers such as Kingswood School in Bean Station, East Tennessee Christian home in Elizabethton, Bethel Bible Village in Chattanooga, Tennessee Baptist Children Home locations at several sites across the state, Mustard Seed Ranch in Cookeville and Wear’s Valley Ranch in Pigeon Forge, but those do not accept children from the Southern border, according to the department.

State Sen. Dawn White, R-Chattanooga (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
State Sen. Dawn White, R-Chattanooga (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

State Sen. Dawn White, a Murfreesboro Republican chairing the Senate portion of the study committee, could not be reached for comment Monday. She has been a vocal opponent of immigration, previously opposing legislation enabling students who came to American as young children with parents illegally to obtain state tuition to Tennessee universities.

Gardenhire, on the other hand, supported allowing those young people known as Dreamers to receive in-state tuition. Under Biden Administration policy, young people in that group are being given preference to seek citizenship, among others who have held work visas and have been law-abiding while living in the United States.


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.