by WTVC Staff, Sabrina Maggiore
Friday, April 9th 2021
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — UPDATE (Monday, April 12th):
Hamilton County Schools is preparing to welcome migrant children housed in Chattanooga to the classroom.
We first told you about this story on Friday, when we went to the old Tennessee Temple dorms in Highland Park. We saw black tarps draped around the fence.
Now, the church that owns the property confirms this is the temporary home of several unaccompanied minors from the U.S. Mexico border.
Redemption of the Nations Church owns the property. Pastor Kevin Wallace spoke to our reporter today and confirmed unaccompanied minors from the border are being housed at the dorms.
Wallace says as a pastor his concern is for the children, and that he wants to make sure this doesn't turn into a "political statement."
Wallace told us the church leased the vacant dorms to a non-profit organization back in 2019 in order to help provide compassionate care to the children.
The pastor said It was part of his vision for the church that stems at least a few years back.
In 2018, he posted this tweet offering up the dorms to the federal government to house children separated from their parents.
Immigration attorney Terry Olsen tells us the children housed in this facility are likely asylum seekers.
"Most likely, these children are in Chattanooga awaiting for the actual processing of their applications," said Olsen.
According to Amnesty International, "an asylum-seeker is a person who has left their country and is seeking protection from persecution and serious human rights violations in another country, but who hasn’t yet been legally recognized as a refugee and is waiting to receive a decision on their asylum claim."
With the immigration court for our area in Memphis closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and immigration policy changing federally, Olsen says there's no way of knowing how long it will take these children to get a court hearing for their asylum status.
In the meantime, The Baptiste Group is contracted by the federal government to provide services to the migrant children housed at the Tennessee Temple Dorms.
A letter obtained by Chalkbeat outlines the group's proposal to offer similar services to unattended children in Shelby County. According to the letter, children housed at the proposed Shelby County facility would receive six hours of schooling and have access to books, board games, computers, recreation, and crafts. The children would also be protected by 24 hour security.
"Historically, as a country, we've always embraced and taken in anyone that has sought asylum since the Immigration Act, I think of 1965. That's been a part of our law ... You have to give them education, you have to give them food, you also have to give them caring. So I think that this is just that process. It's not strange at all. It's actually what I think should be done," said Olsen.
An email from Hamilton County Schools' Homeless Liason Laura Grier tells principals to prepare for a possible influx of unattended minors. The district says under federal law, they must provide educational services to all Hamilton County students, regardless of immigration status.
The body of the email reads as follows:
The Chattanooga area may experience an increase of unattended migrant youth. Please see article included for more information. If any of the students show up to register at your school, please register them immediately. They do not need 2 proofs of residency (or be "in zone"), a birth certificate, immunization record, or proof of guardianship as they will be covered under the McKenney-Vento Homeless Act.
The district released the following statement on the prospect of enrolling migrant children:
"Hamilton County Schools believes that every child should have the opportunity to receive an excellent public education. We wanted to clarify some information regarding stories that have been published regarding migrant children in our community. The first information we had on the potential whereabouts of migrant children came from a local news story. Regardless of where migrant children may come from, The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Plyler v. Doe (1982) that the State cannot deny access to public education to a child on the basis of their citizenship status. The McKinney-Vento Act of 1987 is federal law that also speaks to the role of a public school system in educating unaccompanied youth, which includes migrant children. We will continue to uphold our duty to follow the law in providing a safe, welcoming environment for all children in Hamilton County."
Later Monday afternoon, Hamilton County school board members got into a heated discussion on the topic. See our report here.
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