JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Local political leaders voiced differing opinions regarding unaccompanied immigrant minors arriving in Tennessee.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee reportedly advised the federal government that he did not want unaccompanied minors sent to or through his state, and Republican Rep. Diana Harshbarger told News Channel 11 that she agrees.

“From what I understand the governor was contacted a couple of months ago, about having illegal unaccompanied minors sent to the state and absolutely he said no,” she said.

Harshbarger said that at least three planes have landed in Chattanooga carrying unaccompanied minors, citing intelligence from the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Chattanooga’s WRCB reported that at least four planes carrying migrant children recently arrived at the Wilson Air Center. According to the report, the children were loaded onto buses and transported to other Southeastern cities during the overnight hours.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 717 unaccompanied migrant children were released to sponsors to take care of them between October 2020 and March 2021 in Tennessee.

“This is the question: Where did those children come from? Where are the children going? Who paid to transport them on the airplane to Chattanooga, and who’s paying to transport them from the plane to the final destination? Where are they going? And we’re not sure, I mean these are the questions me and my colleagues are asking, you know, I went to the border in April, and I saw exactly what was going on, they can tell you the border is closed but it’s wide open, and for the Biden administration to circumvent what the governor of Tennessee Bill Lee told them, is unfathomable,” Harshbarger said.

Suzanne Emberton, chair of Washington County, Tennessee, Democratic Party told News Channel 11 that the views of her Republican counterparts were unbecoming.

“I do think it’s unfortunate that the Republican elected officials in our state here, they seem to not be having very much compassion for these children, these are children and we shouldn’t be using them as political pawns, they’re in an unfortunate situation and need to be treated with some amount of dignity, and it’s very striking to me that the crowd that calls for pro-life and have issues with the trafficking of children and things like that, don’t want to protect some vulnerable children who are in need of our assistance, these, you know, it’s kind of difficult to understand their lack of compassion there,” she said.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, over 900 unaccompanied minors were released to sponsors since October 2020 in Tennessee.

US HHS’s Office of the Administration for Children and Families reported that these children are to be timely released to qualified parents, guardians, relatives or other adults, referred to as “sponsors.”

According to ORR: “The first preference for placement would be with a parent of the child. If a parent is not available, the preference is for placement with the child’s legal guardian, and then to various adult family members.”

Harshbarger believes this practice is too time-consuming and expensive.

“They rate them one to four, one is a biological parent, then two, a relative on down until four is a foster parent. The money, it cost $900 to $1,200 a day per child to house these precious children, these children don’t want to be here. I saw them at the border, stacked on top of each other. It’s unfathomable, the conditions. And if you want to know the bottom line to all this, the United States government is becoming the biggest human smuggler of illegal aliens across the United States border period. That’s your answer and there’s no other way around that,” she said.

Emberton believes these policies are in place for a reason.

“Many of these children are finding their families who are here whose aunts, uncles, cousins, that such and they’re the sponsors and they willing to take care of these children it’s not necessarily going to be dependent on the state. We have programs like this in place for a reason, because these situations do arise,” she said.

Harshbarger told News Channel 11 that while she has compassion for these children, laws must be obeyed.

“We don’t want anybody to go hungry, we don’t want anybody to suffer the adversities we’ve heard some of those children suffer. We don’t want them to be abused, but the law is the law. This is a land of laws and lawlessness breeds lawlessness,” she said.

Emberton said these unaccompanied minors should not be prosecuted for breaking these laws since they are minors.

“These are children who are here in unfortunate situations often through really no fault of their own, in some ways – they’re minors. So, you know, the law that they’re breaking may or may not be one that they were actually culpable of, they could have been sent just following the instructions of a parent, or just tagging along because perhaps they have no parents in their home area. So, to basically say, we have to have the law also means that we can’t have any gray areas we can’t have any ability to find a heart to be able to do something for these children,” she said.

But to Harshbarger, the issue runs deeper. To her, it’s about family.

“It ought to cause every person in America to get such a righteous anger that these children are coming. It’s like my son sending my four and six year old grandsons across the border by themself it’s unfathomable,” she said.

Harshbarger told News Channel 11 that she plans to co-sponsor a bill that would prohibit the federal government from sending unaccompanied minors to or through states in which governors have said no.

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