(The Center Square) – A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services operation to resettle hundreds of unaccompanied children apprehended by immigration officials in Tennessee has officials demanding transparency from the Biden administration.
Chattanooga TV station WRCB reported Thursday at least four flights landed at Chattanooga’s Wilson Air Center in the middle of the night carrying unaccompanied children. Videos depicted children boarding buses at the airport that witnesses said were bound to destinations including Miami and Dallas, WRCB reported.
The flights are part of a program operated by HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to provide travel for unaccompanied children to reunite with families or transfer to group home settings.
According to the ORR, 10,418 unaccompanied children were in ORR care as of March 31 – mostly teenage males – up from 1,929 in October. During the month of March, ORR oversaw 6,527 discharges to individual sponsors across the country.
In response to inquiries by The Center Square about the flights into Chattanooga, ORR’s Office of Communications provided this statement:
“ORR’s mission is to safely care for unaccompanied children until they can be unified with a vetted sponsor, usually a parent or close relative. As part of the unification process, ORR is currently facilitating travel for the children in ORR’s custody to their sponsors to prevent any delays. Their parents and relatives are located across the United States, and ORR contractors use various transportation modes to unite unaccompanied children with their families, including air and ground transportation options, taking into account child safety and wellness, travel time, and cost-effectiveness.”
A total of 484 unaccompanied children apprehended by immigration officials have been released to sponsors in Tennessee during the first three months of this year, according to ORR, including 290 unaccompanied children released in Davidson County.
ORR has not released numbers of resettled minors since the end of March, but it’s likely to be a significant increase. During testimony before the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee last week, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas highlighted the recent decrease in the number of minors in Customs and Border Protection custody.
“On March 29, more than 5,700 children were in border patrol stations. Two days ago there were 455,” Mayorkas said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Defense confirmed that the department has provided housing for unaccompanied children at Fort Bliss and Lackland AFB in Texas in conjunction with the HHS operation.
State and local officials in the dark
HHS has carried out the unaccompanied children operation in Tennessee without the knowledge of local or state officials.
HHS did not make Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly aware of its operations in his city, according to a spokesperson from the mayor’s office. Chattanooga Police Department confirmed to The Center Square it did not have any information about the flights. A spokesperson for the Chattanooga Wilson Air Center said the airport did not have any details about the incoming flights.
“We do not have specific information regarding the circumstances of any flights, including the number of flights or identities of passengers on board,” CHA spokesperson Albert Waterhouse told The Center Square in a statement. “Wilson Air Center Chattanooga provides only the necessary operational support, such as fueling and other ground services, to inbound and outbound aircraft.”
HHS had requested help from Tennessee to resettle unaccompanied minors in the state. Gov. Bill Lee denied the request March 19, but the operation continued to move forward.
“Weeks ago, we declined the Biden Administration’s request to house unaccompanied minors and called on the administration to secure the border and stop scattering children across the country,” Lee said in a statement Thursday. “When we demanded answers, they cut off transparency and emboldened one of the worst human trafficking crises we’ve seen at our border in the last 20 years.”
Detainments at the U.S. border have increased significantly this year. The U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 47,642 unaccompanied minors during the first three months of the year – up 163% from the same period last year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol data. Agents apprehended 410,460 adults during the same period, a 209% increase over last year. The majority of unaccompanied children apprehended at the southern border are from Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico.
Officials call for transparency
Lee recently led a group of 20 other governors calling on the Biden administration to address the crisis at the southern border via a letter.
“The crisis is too big to ignore and is now spilling over the border states into all of our states,” the letter read. “Recently, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services called upon many of our states to identify potential housing locations for migrants. In addition, the Department circumvented our states altogether by asking private organizations and nonprofits to house unaccompanied migrant children.”
Congressman Chuck Fleischman, who represents Chattanooga, and U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty have asked the Biden administration for transparency about children being relocated to Tennessee.
“Tennesseans deserve answers from the Biden Administration and they deserve them now,” Hagerty said in a statement. “I have warned for months that President Biden’s failure at the border would result in a systematic resettling of migrants in our communities, burdening our schools, hospitals, and law enforcement agencies, and bringing an increase in drug trafficking and human smuggling. A new reality is happening in our country – every town is now a border town.”