Gardenhire: Unaccompanied children came to Tennessee before Trump left office

By: - June 18, 2021 12:26 pm
Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

Republican state Sen. Todd Gardenhire cast doubt Friday on whether the Baptiste Group could get a fair hearing before a legislative group studying the impact of refugee children on Tennessee.

“If I were them, I wouldn’t want to come to this committee because of the preconceived ideas,” Gardenhire, who represents Chattanooga, said during the panel’s opening meeting.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Republican lawmakers have been in an uproar for weeks after a group of 62 unaccompanied minors detained at the Mexican border were transported to Chattanooga by the federal government where they are staying at a Baptiste Group center until they can be placed with family, friends or a foster home. The children are supposed to stay there for only 30 days, and about 20 have been placed already.

Gardenhire, though, contended the first load of unaccompanied minors arrived in Chattanooga in October 2020 when both President Donald Trump and Gov. Bill Lee were holding office.

“They were Republicans, not Democrats,” Gardenhire said. 

He raised questions about the Biden Administration’s policies at the Southern border but reiterated what he has said for the past two weeks: His primary concern is about the children coming here and how to provide for their safety.

Gardenhire said he would invite the Baptiste Group to testify as committee members discussed the various entities they want to come before the panel at its July 13 meeting. But while raising doubts about whether the Baptiste Group would be well-received, Gardenhire also said the all-Republican committee needs to delve more deeply into the matter.

He pointed to media coverage about a planeload of minors arriving in Chattanooga in the “dead of the night,” a sticking point for Tennessee leaders, including the governor, who have said the Biden administration is failing to be transparent on who is entering the state.

Gardenhire suggested the committee obtain the official flight plan for the plane that transported the children, because it is believed to have stopped in other Tennessee cities before arriving at the Chattanooga airport.

“Before we throw these accusations, we need to look at these flight plans,” Gardenhire said.

The senator’s statements appeared to come in response to comments from Sen. Dawn White, a Murfreesboro Republican who is co-chairing the committee.

“I am deeply troubled by reports of unaccompanied minors coming to Tennessee in the dead of night,” White said. “We have a right to know exactly who is being brought into our state and how long they will be here.”

White contended legislators have spent the last few years trying to strengthen human trafficking laws, and she noted the committee needs to determine whether the children are subject to becoming victims.

Addressing reports the children arrived “in the dead of night,” Gardenhire suggested the committee obtain the official flight plan for the plane that transported the children, because it is believed to have stopped in other Tennessee cities before arriving at the Chattanooga airport.

The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services commissioner testified in a separate committee meeting this week that a child staying at the Chattanooga facility told inspectors about a case of abuse there. The facility is under investigation as a result.

In addition, U.S. Sens. Bill Hagerty and Marsha Blackburn and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Chattanooga sent a letter this week to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra asking about a report of a 16-year-old boy who reportedly went missing from the Baptiste Group facility on June 14.

“The allegation of abuse and the missing child individually raise urgent questions that demand immediate answers regarding the steps HHS is taking to ensure the safety and well-being of (unaccompanied alien children) in this Chattanooga facility. More generally, given the large number of UACs being placed in HHS custody in the interior of the United States due to the ongoing border crisis, we request a briefing to discuss your department’s management of UACs in federal custody throughout the United States and efforts to ensure their well-being,” their letter states.

Rep. Dan Howell, R-Cleveland (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Dan Howell, R-Cleveland (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Rep. Dan Howell, R-Cleveland, said that since most of the unaccompanied minors are teenage boys, he believes their presence will boost gang membership in Tennessee.  

State Rep. Dan Howell, a Cleveland Republican chairing the panel, also questioned the federal government’s transparency during Friday’s meeting, saying the Department of Health and Human Services “provided no clarity about how the process functions” when it confirmed two flights into Chattanooga by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

“It is proper for the governor’s office and this committee to ask questions,” Howell said, specifically about why the federal government “refuses to provide information on unaccompanied children.”

Howell said his information shows the “overwhelming majority” of the unaccompanied minors are 15 to 17 years old and mostly male, boosting recruitment by MS-13, a dangerous Hispanic gang. At the same time, Howell said he is confident the committee will hear testimony that the Office of Refugee Resettlement runs a “good program.”

Part of the committee’s job is to figure out the financial cost of unaccompanied minors being brought to Tennessee. The Department of Fiscal Review will be asked to testify, along with TennCare, the Department of Children’s Services and several other groups, as well as the federal government.

Lawmakers said their biggest task is to come up with a policy or solution for the federal government based on facts surrounding the situation. But some appeared to have done their own research already.

For instance, Republican Rep. Chris Todd of Madison County said the Biden administration has relaxed fingerprint background checks for sponsors, leading to children being handed over to people convicted of numerous crimes, including human trafficking.

“We’re putting them in harm’s way in a lot of ways because of relaxation of these requirements,” Todd said.

In addition, Rep. Bruce Griffey, a Paris Republican, told the committee drug cartels and coyotes, the people who sneak people across the border, are charging $5,000 each and if anyone tries to make it on their own, they are penalized.

“That penalty is death. This is serious, serious business, and it involves the loss of life,” Griffey said.

Gardenhire, however, said the committee needs to develop a set of facts before it comes to any conclusions. 

If members believe the minors are going to wind up in gangs, the group needs to study the effect of all gangs, including the Bloods and Crips operating in his district, he said.

Afterward, Gardenhire also questioned whether the federal government and Baptiste Group need to notify the state every time children are brought to the facility. Should they put the care for children aside to fill out paperwork and call the state, he asked?

After all, he pointed out, the center already has state approval to operate and took in children long before this tempest started.

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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.