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White House, HHS give insight on migrant children passing through Chattanooga

(File photo by Jasmin Merdan via Moment via Getty Images)
(File photo by Jasmin Merdan via Moment via Getty Images)
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UPDATE (Friday, May 21):

On Friday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked about migrant children being flown into Chattanooga.

She provided some insight into why they are here, and where they are going.

"As we have been very clear about, our objective is to unite these unaccompanied children, children under the age of 18, with families, with sponsor families," said Psaki, "These children have been traveling through Tennessee. 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 there are a lot of states around it, so it's a place where some flights have gone through as children are moving to other destinations."

SEE ALSO: Chattanooga pastors condemn lawmakers' statements on unaccompanied migrant children

According to Tennessee immigration attorney Brittany Faith, the federal government is not obligated to tell lawmakers about these situations.

"That would be completely against regular agency procedure," said Faith, "USCIS Nashville doesn't alert the governor or the senators every time they approve someone's green card or grant citizenship."

Earlier today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) responded to our email requesting a comment on this story.

Their email reads,

ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement)'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."

HHS provided two links for more information "about where unaccompanied children are released to vetted sponsors" by state (here) and by county (here).

The links show that at last count in late April, 66 children had come through Hamilton County. A total of 484 had passed through Tennessee.

We also spoke with Tennessee 3rd District Congressman Chuck Fleischmann about this story Friday morning. He repeated his call for more transparency from the government.

"This is a federal agency that we fund with our taxpayer dollars that we give the task to do their job, and they are not doing it," Rep. Fleischmann told us. "They're not being forthcoming with information."

While the links show HHS is being transparent about how many are children coming through, Fleischmann says it runs deeper--through a previous federal court decision.

“When HHS gets these children, they've got to release them within 72 hours. Okay, many times that's to the detriment of the children,” he said. “Within 72 hours to do something, I'm saying they're doing the wrong thing.”

The Congressman recently paid a trip to the U.S. southern border to address the migrant issue. But Friday morning, he told us he has not toured old dorm rooms on Tennessee Temple's campus, where we reported in April was temporarily housing up to 100 migrant children. That was paid for by the Baptiste Group.

When we asked Rep. Fleischmann if he plans to personally tour those facilities in the near future, he replied "We certainly would be amenable to that right now."

We're working to learn more, and will update this story once we do.

PREVIOUSLY (Thursday, May 20):

Lawmakers from Tennessee are demanding answers from the Biden administration after reports of migrant children being flown to Chattanooga.

Senator Marsha Blackburn, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, and Sen. Bill Hagerty have signed a letter to federal officials, calling for an explanation after they say they were "left in the dark" about the situation.

The lawmakers say according to media reports this week, citing unnamed sources, at least four planes carrying unaccompanied minors landed at Wilson Air Center in Chattanooga. The children were then reportedly boarded onto buses and transported to cities across the southeastern U.S. for apparent resettlement.

You can read the lawmakers' letter to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) below.

"These reports raise many questions that need to be answered, but the basic question that must be answered is whether the federal government is using Tennessee as a central location for resettling UACs (unaccompanied alien children) in the United States," wrote the lawmakers.

In a video uploaded to Twitter, Blackburn and Fleischmann said they had learned only afterward about the matter, and claimed President Biden was hiding information.

"Senator Blackburn and I share a common concern. That is our border security, that is addressing the crisis at the border from a humanitarian standpoint," said Rep. Fleischmann in the video, "But when we think of the fact that we have been left in the dark, as the elected public officials in our great republic. The Administration has not been forthright in terms of telling us what is going on."

"It's a problem in Chattanooga, Tennessee, it's a problem in the State of Tennessee, and it's a problem all across the United States," Fleischmann stated.

Hagerty said on Twitter, "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."

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee also weighed in on the matter. "Weeks ago, we declined the Biden Administration's request to house unaccompanied minors & called on the administration to secure the border & stop scattering children across the country," Gov. Lee tweeted Thursday.

"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," Lee continued.

Blackburn, Fleischmann, and Hagerty say they are asking for DHHS and DHS to schedule a briefing with them to discuss the department's management of unaccompanied children, and any operations in Chattanooga or the state at large.

Some Chattanooga leaders have expressed frustration about being left in the dark when other migrant children were brought to the city.

We confirmed in April that some unaccompanied migrant children from the U.S. Mexico border have been housed at the old Tennessee Temple dorms in Highland Park.

We learned from the state that a non-profit organization called The Baptiste Group has a contract with the Federal Government Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Documents we received said the group is accepting up to 100 children between the ages of 12 and 17, and that they will have one staff member for every eight children. The group's goal is to keep them at the location for 30 days.

SEE MORE: La Paz says Chattanooga could be a stark contrast in the lives of migrant children

The documents said the children will not be attending public schools -- in Hamilton County or anywhere else -- a matter of hot debate in the district and among school board members.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger told county commissioners that it was "embarrassing" how little they had been told about the matter. Coppinger said he was trying to get more information on the situation to share with commissioners.

When the news broke, Congressman Fleischmann, who represents Tennessee's 3rd District and calls Chattanooga home, asked HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra about programs like the one at the old Tennessee Temple dorms.

The HHS secretary promised transparency at the time.

"You will have eyes into this, we have to protect privacy because of adults, but we will operate in a very transparent manner, we want everyone to see it," Becerra told Rep. Fleischmann on April 15.

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This is a developing story and will be updated as we learn more.

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