NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) – News4 is digging deeper into why migrant children were seen arriving at a Tennessee airport.
It’s led to responses from the governor and Tennessee’s senators.
As first reported by WRCB-TV, a video shows migrant children arriving late Saturday night at Chattanooga’s Wilson Air Center. You can see them heading to board charter buses on the runway.
The videos sparked criticism from Senator Marsha Blackburn and other members of the Tennessee congressional delegation. They are asking for transparency from the Biden administration.
Tennesseans deserve answers & they deserve them now. I have warned that Biden’s failure at the border would result in a systematic resettling of migrants in our communities. A new reality is happening in our country—every town is now a border town. https://t.co/u0RK3KD1jD— Senator Bill Hagerty (@SenatorHagerty) May 20, 2021
On Friday, Rep. Jim Cooper retweeted a News 4 with his thoughts on the matter.
All faiths embrace the stranger, and separating children from their parents is the opposite of that. Tennessee is the Volunteer State and our state leaders should be helping @POTUS reunite families and repair the broken immigration system, not turning away children. https://t.co/FdUprx7mS3— Jim Cooper (@repjimcooper) May 21, 2021
White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about the governor's reports that at least four planes, filled with unaccompanied minors landed in Tennessee some in the middle of the night.
"Well, as we have been very clear about, children-- our objective is to unite these unaccompanied children, children under the age of 18 with families, with sponsor families. So children traveling--we're traveling through, have been traveling through Tennessee," Psaki said. "They are simply on their way to unite with relatives and sponsors, to meet sponsors in the state or just traveling through Tennessee until they reach another destination to unite with family members or legal sponsors. As you know, geographically, it's right in a place where you know, there's a lot of states around it so it's a place where some flights have gone through as children are moving to other destinations.
Gov. Bill Lee tweeted about the incident.
When we demanded answers, they cut off transparency & emboldened one of the worst human trafficking crises we’ve seen at our border in the last 20 years. I commend @SenatorHagerty & @MarshaBlackburn for calling this out - Tennesseans deserve to know who is coming into our state.— Gov. Bill Lee (@GovBillLee) May 20, 2021
To read the full letter from Blackburn, Hagerty, Fleischmann, click here.
"We shouldn't be using vulnerable children as a political football in this moment,” Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, Executive Director for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition said.
Sherman-Nikolaus spoke with News4 on Thursday.
"For decades, Tennessee has welcomed migrant children, refugees, other folks who are seeking asylum, fleeing persecution and violence,” Sherman-Nikolaus said.
After reaching out to several federal agencies for more information, News4 heard back.
It turns out the Office of Refugee Resettlement cares for unaccompanied children until they can be put with a vetted sponsor like a parent or close relative. The office falls under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The agency issued a statement to News4 on Thursday:
“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.”
“They're being reunited with loved ones, sponsors, with people who are going to give them a home and that's the bottom line, we need to protect vulnerable children period,” Sherman-Nikolaus said.
News4 also learned about the number of unaccompanied children released to sponsors like a parent or close relative. The latest data goes from October of 2020 through March of 2021.
The agency said they released 290 unaccompanied children during that time period in Davidson County.
As far as whether any migrant children were transported to Nashville recently, the agency did not answer that question.