Tennessee’s Open Border Problem

Photo: Representative Robin Smith (R) Hixson, TN / background – Old Tennessee Temple dormitory in Highland Park, Chattanooga

Photo Credit: capitol.tn.gov

Published June 21, 2021

By Representative Robin Smith (R) Hixson, TN –

Did you ever believe Chattanooga, Tennessee – touching nine other states and about 24 hours away from the Mexican border by car – would be involved in an ever-changing story involving a migrant detention center housing unaccompanied alien children who are in federal custody after being apprehended crossing the open southern border?

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A few weeks back the eyes of the public were drawn with fixed attention to the news of flights into Chattanooga in the wee hours the morning of unaccompanied alien children as defined by the Administration of Children and Families (ACF) housed in the US Dept of Health and Human Services as “a child who has no lawful immigration status in the United States…” with “no parent or legal guardian in the United States to provide care and physical custody.” The UACs, being housed in the former TN Temple University dorms, are, again, in the eyes of the public because of a report of a potential abuse investigation as well as the flight of a minor from the facility – a runaway.

The public’s concern is justified as a federal failure is now a state and local issue that will burden taxpayers.

The Administration of President Joe Biden and his appointed border czar, Vice President Kamala Harris has deconstructed and dismantled the much-improved immigration process and border wall which was beginning to show results at the southern border. Biden, Harris along with each voter, Democratic, Independent and Republican, who demanded to make the November 2020 election about personality and not effective policies, hold the responsibility for this border crisis that has now reached Tennessee, along with a laundry list of other critical problems, like inflation.

Let’s look at the hard facts.

To appreciate the scale of the impact of the Biden-Harris open border policies, the law enforcement encounters logged by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in May of 2020 (think Trump) were 23,237. That number had risen to 45,139 in October 2020 as the promises of border enforcement changes rang through the air in the presidential elections. The current numbers listed as May 2021 law enforcement encounters with the Biden-Harris abandonment of lawful immigration policy have now reached the historic level of 180,134 in May…just the month of May.

Using this same data, the number of unaccompanied alien children exploded from 33,239 for all of 2020 to 79,948 year-to-date. In only five months, there are more than double the number of UACs met at the Biden-Harris southern border versus Trump. And, yet, no clutching of pearls or grasping of breath by the mainstream media that verbally crucified the 45th President and conservatives. 

What happens to these children? As noted in the referenced May 2021 ACF Fact Sheet describing the UAC Program, upon apprehension at the southern border, minors who have no parent or legal guardian are taken into federal custody where they will remain until placed in the care or guardianship of a family or sponsor. It’s this process that has movement of children throughout the US that includes cities like Chattanooga.

In 22 states, there are over 200 state-licensed facilities operated by the US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) through its Office of Refugee Resettlement. As of May 2, 2021, there were “approximately 22,264 UC in HHS care” with that number clearly growing without information shared in any community. 

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A few more points of fact, then let’s talk about getting solutions. 

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, as part of HHS, notes on its website the mission: “provides new populations with the opportunity to achieve their full potential in the United States. Our programs provide people in need with critical resources to assist them in becoming integrated members of American society.” It further notes, “U.S. policy allows refugees of special humanitarian concern entrance into our country…”

Refugees are quite different from alien children. Refugees, by definition given by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, housed under the Dept of Homeland Security like CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is one who is located outside the US, is of special humanitarian concern, demonstrates “they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group,” is not firmly resettled in another country and “is admissible to the United States.” the CIS website declares, “If you are approved as a refugee, you will receive a medical exam, a cultural orientation, help with your travel plans, and a loan for your travel to the United States.”  

Understand that an agency that was presented in this state and others to welcome persecuted individuals through an application process, vetting and approval is now running an unaccompanied alien children program.

Finally, Tennessee, one of those 22 states licensing one of those more than 200 centers housing UACs, is doing its job to provide the same standard license for a residential care facility but at no time has any role in the custody of any child involved. Hence, the complications legally.

Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services has no access to the data supposedly collected by CBP and shared among its federal alphabetted brethren ICE, ORR, DHS, etc. This has become materially an issue with the Chattanooga situation.

The state has only access to the census of the licensed facility located on the campus now owned by a local church, Redemption to the Nations, La Casa de Sidney operated by The Baptiste Group, LLC of Atlanta through a federal grant to care for 12 – 17-year-olds. The licensing process gives DCS access for one announced visit, two unannounced visits annually and the ability to audit random files selected and interview occupants to assess treatment and well-being.

So, in the case of the recent unannounced visit made by DCS that yielded an allegation of a staff kissing a “child,” which resulted in the firing of said staff member of the nonprofit facility, information about a child is limited because the custodial organization is the US Government, not the State of Tennessee, as in foster care or a juvenile detention case. Add to this the report on June 14 of a runaway minor from the same facility, the information shared with law enforcement authorities to assist in locating the “child” is scarce. Based on personal conversations, a photograph and information that is self-reported with no documentation comprise that given to law enforcement.

In accounts by DCS staff, the census at the time of the unannounced visit was all male and Guatemalan. Supposedly, CBP collects a fingerprint at the time of apprehension at the border. Yet, are these self-reported minors actually teenagers? Are they in America, not separated from a parent, but aided by a “coyote” or guide assisting a cartel, as reported by that far right-wing whacko publication Rolling Stone in its story about human trafficking run by the “powerful crime syndicate?”

What can be done in Tennessee and is this current construct aiding illegal activity? 

First, speak clearly to our US representation in the House and Senate. Congressmen Chuck Fleischmann and Mark Green as well as US Senators Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty are very engaged and involved in fact-finding and working to find a solution.

Second, the TN General Assembly’s Study Committee on Refugee Issues has convened and is operational to elicit information from various parties involved. Over the next few months, this group will have public hearings that will facilitate more information.

Yet, the facts remain. The Biden-Harris Administration is doing nothing to slow or stop the illegal crossings of unaccompanied alien children. There is little to no communication about the movement of the alleged minors; there is no data-sharing upon entering a facility or upon placement in a sponsor’s home and the well-being thereafter. 

This is not just a Chattanooga issue. From October 2019 through September 2020, 510 UACs were released to sponsors in Tennessee. From October 2020 through April 2021, 1,111 UACs have been released, as reported by June 10, 2021 data from ACF. Within our state, Davidson County has had 436 sponsor placements, Hamilton County has had 99, Knox County has received 53, Rutherford County 71, Sevier County 51 and Shelby County 203. A total of 913 are accounted for with no specifics on the 198 with no documented placement.

The need for open information is critical. But, understand, these UACs are not refugees, as defined by law. It is fair to ask questions concerning smuggling, human trafficking and other activity that would benefit a cartel or gang activity.

In Tennessee, DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols and her team have been very responsive and active in seeking information within her jurisdiction. The Chattanooga Police Department is working to assist with limited information. The reality is that Tennessee is, indeed, now facing significant issues with illegal immigration due the failure of federal policies being used politically.

So, the actions of the Tennessee General Assembly, again, will be in response to a federal failure related to an Administration that is eroding the very value of our American citizenship and sense of a thriving community. 

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