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Tennessee lawmakers seek answers on shelter for migrant kids

(FILE – In this June 26, 2019 file photo, migrant children walk with their families along the Rio Grande, as pedestrian commuters use the Puerta Mexico bridge to enter Brownsville, Texas, seen from Matamoros, Tamaulipas state, Mexico. The U.S. this week started having immigrant children held in Houston appear before a judge based in Atlanta, in what advocates say is a pilot that could portend a nationwide expansion of video hearings for kids. While the government would not confirm its plans, advocates warned of a greater burden being placed on detained immigrant children, many of whom are not yet teenagers and don’t have guaranteed access to an attorney. AP Photo: Rebecca Blackwell)

By KIMBERLEE KRUESI, NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP):- Tennessee lawmakers are calling for more scrutiny of a Chattanooga shelter for immigrant children after state officials confirmed that an unaccompanied migrant child reported being abused there.

The abuse allegations became public earlier this week during a legislative committee, where lawmakers quizzed top leaders at the Department of Children’s Services during a conversation on migrant children being brought to Tennessee by the federal government.

The practice has taken place for years, but has sparked recent outrage from Republican leaders who allege the federal government has not been transparent when pressed about immigrant children moving through Tennessee. Gov. Bill Lee’s office has alleged, without evidence, that the practice could enable “the trafficking of children,” while Republican U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, along with Republican U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, have sent a letter to the heads of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Homeland Security demanding answers.

The situation sparked more fervor among Republicans after Commissioner Jennifer Nichols said this week that in early June during an unannounced inspection of a Chattanooga shelter, a young boy reported he had witnessed “an act that, in our policy, would substantiate and require an investigation” while at the facility.

The shelter is run by the Baptiste Group, which was licensed by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and began operating last year under then-President Donald Trump’s administration. The shelter has a federal contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to temporarily house unaccompanied migrant minors.

No other details about the abuse allegations have been made public. By Friday, a group of lawmakers — all Republicans — said they wanted representatives from Baptiste Group to testify and answer questions about their operation.

The group was formed by Senate Speaker Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton to investigate refugee and immigration settlement in Tennessee after a local television station aired footage of children arriving at a Chattanooga airport and boarding buses in the middle of the night.

“I’m concerned about the lack of transparency, surrounding the transport of unaccompanied minors,” said Republican Sen. Dawn White, the group’s co-chair. “We have a right to know who is coming into our state.”

Blackburn, Hagerty and Fleischmann on Friday renewed their calls for more answers from the federal government by requesting a briefing with top officials to discuss the abuse allegations.

Unaccompanied children who are taken into custody by Customs and Border Protection are transferred to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which shelters them until they are placed with sponsors, usually a relative. White House officials have said the children seen in Chattanooga were on their way to be reunited with relatives and sponsors.

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