Late-night flights carrying migrant children arrive in Chattanooga

FIRST ON 3: Late-night flights carrying migrant children arrive in Chattanooga

Chattanooga’s Wilson Air Center is receiving planes carrying migrant children who are being bused to multiple southeastern cities during overnight hours.

Wednesday, May 19th 2021, 2:31 PM EDTUpdated: Thursday, May 20th 2021, 5:14 AM EDT

By Callie Starnes By Mary Francis Hoots

Chattanooga’s Wilson Air Center is receiving planes carrying migrant children who are being bused to multiple southeastern cities during overnight hours.

Channel 3 obtained video of one of those planes arriving Friday, May 14 shortly before 1:30 a.m.

A second video, shared with Channel 3, shows more children arriving late Saturday night. According to the source who provided the video, a third plane carrying children arrived Friday afternoon. Flight records confirm that a fourth plane arrived early Wednesday morning, May 19.

The video obtained by Channel 3, shows children who appear to be in their early teens carrying matching bags. The children then boarded buses, which were staged on the runway. Two of the four buses seen in the video are owned by Coast to Coast Tours of East Point, Georgia.

According to a Coast-to-Coast employee, the buses were dispatched to Chattanooga as part of a contract with the United States Department of Defense. The employee says this was the first time the company had been asked to pick up migrant children in Chattanooga. In the past, the company’s drivers have traveled to Mobile, Alabama, and Atlanta to transport children, according to the employee.

“They don’t give us very much information,” the employee told Channel 3.

She confirmed the two buses seen in the video left Chattanooga for Miami, Florida, and Dallas, Texas. She added that the children are not allowed to get off the bus during the trip and three or four chaperones, who are not employed by the bus company are onboard at all times. She says the bus company requires chaperones when transporting “children under the age of 18.

Channel 3 reached out to Knoxville Tours, Little Rock Tours, and Malone Bussing Services, all of which Channel 3 confirmed assisted over the weekend, but we have not heard back. Malone Bussing Services is located in Cleveland, Tennessee.

A source with direct knowledge of the operation asked to remain anonymous but tells Channel 3 that approximately 30 to 50 minors are transported at a time, some to reunite with family members and others to go to group homes. He says the operation started in Dallas, Texas, but moved to small airports recently to avoid attention.

Chattanooga Airport spokesperson Albert Waterhouse says the airport is not involved with the coordination of the operation.

Wilson Air Center Chattanooga is a fixed base operator that provides only the necessary operational support, such as fueling and other ground services, to inbound and outbound aircraft,” said Waterhouse.

Channel 3 submitted a request to the Department of Defense about the efforts. A spokesperson directed us to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“From what I can tell, these were flights facilitated by HHS,” said LTC Chris Mitchell, Department of Defense Spokesperson. “The only support DoD is providing with respect to the unaccompanied minors is land and facilities for HHS to temporarily house them.

Channel 3 has reached out to HHS for comment but has not yet heard back.

In April, HHS confirmed a group of unaccompanied minors is being housed at a former Tennessee Temple dormitory in Highland Park. It is not clear how many of the children who have arrived in Chattanooga in recent days have been transported to that facility, but multiple sources say at least ten boys from the group were taken to the facility.

Brittany Faith, an immigration attorney at Grant Konvalinka & Harrison, P.C. in Chattanooga and the board chair of La Paz told Channel 3 in April the space would house all-male children, likely teenagers.

That program is being managed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), an operational division of HHS. The building being used in Chattanooga is owned by Redemptions to the Nations Church and was leased to the Baptiste Group, a non-profit that provides unification services for children displaced from their families.

Channel 3 has reached out to elected officials to ask if they are aware of Chattanooga being used as a hub for transporting migrant children.

3rd District Congressman Chuck Fleischmann says he was contacted by a concerned citizen who “raised concerns based on alleged first-hand knowledge” of the weekend flights. Fleischmann said he is working to verify the details to gain a better understanding.

“There has been no indication that the time of day for the arrival of these migrant children is related to anything more than the processing time at the original point of entry border station, confirmation of available shelter, and the availability of the sufficient transports,” Fleischmann said, adding that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not provide members of Congress with notice on the transport of migrants.

Fleischmann added, “As the Ranking Member of the US House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, I continue to seek answers from this Administration on how they plan to deal with the crisis their policies have caused at the border. As part of this effort, I will continue to demand that the Administration provide details on how they plan to account for and provide shelter to these migrant children pouring across our border while also ensuring that local communities do not absorb the financial and health costs associated with the Administration’s policies.”

U.S. Senator Bill Hagerty said he was not aware of the flights into Chattanooga, but said, “It is time for President Biden to be transparent with Tennesseans and the American people regarding where the hundreds of thousands of migrants being resettled in the United States are being sent because they deserve to know.”

U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn shared a statement Wednesday afternoon, saying she was unaware of the operation in Tennessee.

“Our office has received no information from the Biden Administration informing us of a mass transportation of migrants to Tennessee,” said Blackburn. “It is absolutely unacceptable if the Biden Administration is facilitating a mass migration without any input or oversight from Tennesseans and the affected communities.”

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