Gov. Bill Lee addressing members of the Tennessee National Guard while on a trip to the Texas-Mexico border in July. (Photo: tn.gov)
Shrugging off the notion that the Southern border “crisis” is a political attack, Gov. Bill Lee says the nation should develop a new strategy to stop a surge in illegal crossings and activity from Mexico.
After a two-day trip to review 300 Tennessee National Guard soldiers serving on a year-long mission for border patrol support, Lee said Sunday night the visit “really opened my eyes to the enormous challenges” the nation faces there. First Lady Maria Lee accompanied the governor on his trip.
The governor noted he wants to be part of a “national conversation” with border governors and the Biden Administration to reshape strategy, calling for an “enormous effort” to making border security “top priority” so the government knows who is immigrating to the United States and can control criminal activity.
Lee could not pinpoint a change from the Trump Administration policy to that of the Biden Administration that has caused an increase in the number of people trying to cross the border. But he did note Trump’s consistent talk about the importance of building a wall, which Biden scuttled once he took office, in addition to the priority the former president placed on border patrol.
“And one of the things you do see when you go there is the winding complexity, the difficulty from a topography standpoint of the border and how technology combined … with an actual border wall or an actual facility that stops people from moving, when there’s a combination there, it’s powerfully more effective,” Lee said. “So I think the strategies have been different. But the difference that we’ve seen is the number of people coming across the border.”
The governor said the biggest difference between illegal activity in the last two years and traditional activity is that people from 56 countries, not just from Central and South America, are trying to enter at the border. In addition, he said illegal drug smuggling, human trafficking and sex trafficking are more prevalent.
Tennessee National Guard troops from three units, the 269th Military Police Company, 913th Engineer Company and 2-151 Aviation Battalion are providing support for the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, but are not detaining people. They are on a Title X mission, meaning the work is being paid for by the federal government, but it is up to the governor to authorize their activation.
Border activity turned into a hot Tennessee political issue in June when a Chattanooga TV station videotaped a plane dropping off a load of unaccompanied immigrant children in the middle of the night. Republicans accused the Biden Administration of trying to cover up the dissemination of illegal immigrants across the country.
Tennessee’s Senate and House speakers formed a study committee of Republican lawmakers to determine the impact of unaccompanied minors on the state, even though there were fewer than 100 who stayed at La Casa de Sydney.
The children in Chattanooga were housed at the Baptiste Group facility, which was operating under a federal contract with a Tennessee license, until the children could be connected with friends or family. The state revoked the organization’s license after a child there told inspectors during a surprise visit that he saw one of the teens being kissed by a facility staff member. The teen later ran away.
Lee previously notified the Biden Administration that Tennessee would not accept unaccompanied immigrants from the Southern border. The governor did not discuss the Chattanooga situation during his Sunday night call with Maj. Gen. Jeff Holmes.
The governor said he met with the troops and leaders and took helicopter tours at night and day of a 25-mile stretch of the border where the most movement of people occurs. He described the “complex nature” of the border as winding, remote and wooded and pointed out it is difficult to control who moves across the border there.
Lee called the situation a national security threat and public safety threat and said he was struck by the amount of human exploitation going on there. Lee said he believes a strategy for border security is lacking at the national level.
“I want to be part of those national conversations that go on because now that I’ve seen it, I recognize that this is not a political problem. This is truly a problem for our country, and to the degree that my observations can be helpful, and that we can be a part of forming a strategy,” he said.
Lee defended his decision to make the trip, saying the 300 Tennessee National Guard troops are “top priority” for him and calling it an important part of his job to “interact” with them.
We've got real problems here in Tennessee and the governor doing photo ops in Texas isn't gonna solve a single one of them.
– Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville
Democrats have accused Lee of turning the border situation into a political attack on the Biden Administration, especially since Tennessee National Guard troops have been there for a year.
“We’ve got real problems here in Tennessee and the governor doing photo ops in Texas isn’t gonna solve a single one of them,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat. “The governor needs to focus on getting Tennesseans vaccinated, back to school and back to work and spend less time just trying to get on Fox News.”
Yarbro said he has not been able to discern much difference between Biden’s border policy and that of former President Trump. But he noted he has been more concerned about the work of the Tennessee Legislature, which doesn’t include national immigration policy.
State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a frequent critic of the Lee Administration, also pointed out the state has plenty of issues that require the governor’s “immediate attention,” including health care, education and unemployment.
“This taxpayer-funded junket was a political stunt and pit stop on the way to Iowa for an out-of-touch governor who fancies himself a candidate for the GOP presidential ticket in 2024,” Clemmons, a Nashville Democrat, said.
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