An entirely Republican study committee formed to discuss migrant children who are being housed in Tennessee asked more questions than provided answers during its first meeting Friday.
Committee Chair Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro, says the group aims to determine how many migrant children are being relocated to Tennessee by the federal government, and how to increase transparency on the process. “And last,” she says, “study the impact financially beyond of the federal government’s relocation program on Tennesseans.”
The meeting of the Committee on Refugee Issues comes after a child went missing from a facility in Chattanooga for 12- to 17-year-old migrant kids called La Casa de Sidney. Another child at the facility reported seeing a staff member kissing a resident. That staff member was terminated, according to a report from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, which is investigating the incident.
Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, withdrew Tennessee from the federal refugee resettlement program in 2008. Since then, the U.S. State Department has worked directly with voluntary providers to place refugees in Tennessee without state oversight. The move was meant to take state officials out of resettlement decisions, but it also meant they would not be notified when refugees are placed in Tennessee.
In recent years, Tennessee Republicans have complained about the arrangement. In 2017, they sued the federal government over refugee resettlement claiming unspecified costs to housing asylum seekers, a case that the state would eventually lose.
One topic of confusion at Friday’s hearing was why the name of the committee conflates refugees, who enter the country legally after a lengthy and arduous legal process, with migrants. State Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, asked if children should be allowed to participate in the Office of Refugee Resettlement program if they have committed a crime.
“It’s my understanding that crossing the border is a criminal offense,” he said.
The next meeting of the committee is proposed for July 13, and members requested representatives from the federal government, the governor’s office and the foster care system to be in attendance to answer some of their questions.
The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition said it will also try to work with the committee “to clarify any misinformation and ensure that every child on American soil is treated with dignity and compassion.”
“For years, Tennesseans have opened up their doors to provide loving and supportive homes for these kids,” Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, the organization’s director, said in an emailed statement. “We should be working with agencies and the federal government to ensure these children and their families have the support they need to grow and thrive.”