Tennessee House of Representatives (Photo: John Partipilo)
Lawmakers speculated Thursday on how the state can further regulate companies providing services to undocumented immigrants under federal contracts and if the state can levy stricter punishments on those aiding undocumented immigrants.
The questions came during a meeting of the Joint Study Committee on Refugee Issues, which was formed after a group of migrant children arrived in Chattanooga in mid-May to be temporarily housed, a practice that predates President Joe Biden.
Glenn Reynolds, professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law, told the panel that the state has a significant amount of regulatory powers with regard to migrant-relocation facilities and state licensing facilities that house unaccompanied minors.
While state officials can not defy federal regulations, they reserve the right to enforce state regulations, such as removing business licenses for those who hire undocumented immigrants and forcing employers to use the E-Verify system. Businesses enrolled in E-Verify can use the program to confirm the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S.
In the case of facilities housing unaccompanied children, the state can enforce existing regulations, such as capacity, existing conditions, prevention of sexual and other abuse.
In other words, said Reynolds, anything that doesn’t directly target the federal government or discriminate against businesses for doing federal work should be upheld in state and federal court.
“The simple fact that his housing of refugee children is happening under a federal contract or a federal grant does not exempt the institution from state regulation,” he said.
Reynold’s legal specialities include the First Amendment, Second Amendment, constitutional law, administrative law, and space technology.
After allegations of molestation at Baptiste Group-run La Casa de Sidney, which housed unaccompanied children in Chattanooga, state officials rescinded Baptiste’s license to operate. The Baptiste Group challenged the suspension but a judge upheld it.
Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson, asked whether unaccompanied children could be subject to COVID-19 tests in order to enter Tennessee.
“People coming from Central America, Mexico and such tend to have very high COVID infections, and I don’t think that’s disputed. It’s hard to imagine the court thinking that’s unreasonable,” said Reynolds.
Lawmakers also considered removing incentives for undocumented immigrants, such as challenging Plyler vs. Doe, a landmark decision holding that states cannot constitutionally deny students a free public education on account of their immigration status. Otherwise state officials could impose fines on nonprofit organizations and businesses that provide assistance to undocumented immigrants.
Lawmakers briefly entertained the idea of making attempts to rescind licenses for pilots and drivers involved in the transportation of unaccompanied children under federal direction, which is illegal under federal law.
“Can we treat those businesses differently just because they’re servicing folks that are here illegally under our immigration laws?” asked Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris.
Misconceptions about refugees
Guest speakers from immigrant-advocacy groups challenged misconceptions around the unaccompanied children currently housed throughout Tennessee.
Rick Musacchio, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission, emphasized that the unaccompanied children did not legally classify as refugees. This term refers to a small but specific group in the nation’s legal immigration system.
The Refugee Resettlement Program works under a limit set by the U.S. president and is a long and lengthy vetting process that can take 18 to 24 months.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, more than two-thirds of all refugees came from five countries and this does not include most Central or South American countries.
“Catholic Charities, Diocese of Nashville, does not place, transport or relocate migrants or asylum seekers entering the country across the southern border,” said Musacchio.
Instead, the organization resettles refugees, and data has shown that from 1990 to 2012, refugees provided more than $1.38 billion in revenue to the state, which is $633 million more than they consumed in state funds.
“A long history has shown that almost all refugees resettled through this program are self-sustaining within six-months of arrival,” he said.
“They work hard in industries needing labor and they are happy for a new beginning,” he added.
William Gill, an associate professor of law at Duncan School of Law at Lincoln Memorial University, spoke of representing migrant children escaping abusive families or threats of sexual abuse, alluding to the ages of most the the unaccompanied children.
Many of the unaccompanied children are between the ages of 12 and 15 and are seeking asylum in the U.S. mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, which are all experiencing severe political unrest.
Some of these children may qualify for asylum under the special juvenile classification, in which it is not in the best interest of the child to be returned to their country of origin or be reunited with parents due to neglect and abandonment, said Gill. Otherwise the children can apply for protections if they have been victims of certain crimes and human trafficking.
Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, said he understood not wanting to turn away those who were escaping abusive situations but emphasized the need for the unaccompanied children to be vetted.
The child would have to prove their credibility, such as a written statement by a family member, said Gill.
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