Refugee study panel seeks ‘transparency’ in placement of unaccompanied children

By: - January 31, 2022 12:23 pm
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)

Lawmakers serving on a specially convened committee acknowledge the transport and placement of unaccompanied refugee children lies with the federal government, but they still want Tennessee to be part of the equation.

Some legislators, however, wonder whether the outcome was worth the effort.

After some eight months of study, the Joint Study Committee on Refugee Issues is urging “transparency” and recommended passage of a resolution calling for the federal government to seek approval from the state before it brings unaccompanied “alien” children into the state. 

The panel also voted last week to support the Migrant Resettlement Transparency Act introduced by U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty of Tennessee. It would require the secretary of Health and Human Services to consult with the state and local officials in advance of resettlement or housing of illegal immigrants.

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

“Truthfully, the state has very little control over immigration,” state Rep. Dan Howell, a Cleveland Republican who co-chaired the committee, said following its final meeting. “But we have control over the safety of children that come into this state when they’re in state custody. That’s the basis of our committee.”

State Sen. Dawn White added that she was disappointed the federal government provides little to no information to the state on unaccompanied children.

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

“Unfortunately, the Biden Administration’s not telling us who’s coming into this state, what’s happening to these children, and that’s very disappointing,” said White, a Murfreesboro Republican who co-chaired the committee.

In addition, the panel is seeking reporting requirements. For instance, any agency caring for unaccompanied children would be required to disclose to the state any contracts with third parties for child care, in addition to the total number of children housed in a refugee center annually.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican who considers the matter a political tempest, raised questions about costs that would be imposed on agencies that will be required to fill out new reports.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, is questioning Gov. Bill Lee's no-bid contracts. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“We had a great exercise in letting everybody show their frustration,” Gardenhire said.

About 90% of the children who stay here temporarily go to the other states after sponsors are located, according to testimony.

The refugee study committee formed this spring after Republican leaders grew alarmed by the delivery of a planeload of immigrant children in the middle of the night at a Chattanooga airport. The children were taken to La Casa de Sidney, a facility run by the Baptiste Group, which had a federal contract to take them in and was authorized by the state to accept children until they could be placed with friends or family.

The Department of Children’s Services suspended the organization’s license amid arrests of employees charged with having inappropriate sexual contact with minors who stayed at the center. The cases remain open.

Bethany Christian Services in Nashville is believed to be the only center currently serving unaccompanied children, but Bridge Refugee Services in East Tennessee served a number of Afghan refugees in Knoxville and Chattanooga in 2021. 

La Casa de Sidney is no longer operating, and its contract with the state is set to end in February, according to a committee report.

In an effort to protect children, the panel is also recommending immediate reporting of juveniles who go missing from state-licensed facilities. It also wants to revoke the license of any facility whose employees are charged with criminal conduct and make the facility ineligible for further state contracts.

Department of Children’s Services officials said those  requirements should not cause the department much extra work.

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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.