Concerns raised Friday by Gov. Bill Haslam about unaccompanied immigrant children arriving in Tennessee baffled some immigrant advocates and prompted questions about the timing and tone of the letter he sent to the White House.
Haslam said President Barack Obama's administration should have informed state officials about the 760 minors placed in Tennessee so far this year. And he demanded immediate answers to eight questions — still unanswered on Monday — about the process by which minors who cross the border alone are cared for while waiting for immigration court hearings.
But while Haslam said the federal government's actions and lack of transparency caused "great uncertainty," some advocates said it was the governor's letter that muddied the waters about an otherwise routine process.
The unaccompanied minors have been placed into Tennessee households with approved "sponsors" — typically their own families and relatives — as has been happening for years, said immigrant and refugee advocates.
"They've got somewhere to go," said Eben Cathey, spokesman for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. "They're not getting dropped off. They're getting placed with their mom, dad, aunt or uncle."
The governor's letter came after an Internet posting by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which listed where children have been placed this year. Policymakers are scrambling to respond to a surge in children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, creating a crisis in a system unprepared for the volume. After many years of about 7,000 unaccompanied children entering the U.S., the number spiked in 2011 and again this year, with 30,000 children arriving in the first six months of this year.
Once here, children must undergo a court process to determine whether they can stay.
"Unaccompanied minors have been coming into the U.S. for years and years and years," said Holly Johnson, state refugee coordinator for the Tennessee Office of Refugees.
Johnson said she and others with ties to immigrant groups were surprised by the latest attention. She expressed skepticism that Tennessee was seeing a significant surge, though no one could cite specific numbers for previous years. She said her agency sometimes helps link children to families but has been asked to make very few connections this year.
In his letter, Haslam said state governors made it clear earlier this month during the National Governors Association meeting in Nashville that they wanted federal transparency about immigration. He also said an influx of children now could complicate the start of the school year.
A spokesman for the governor, Dave Smith, said the White House had not answered Haslam's questions.
"It's also my understanding the numbers are up," he said.
Yet one national immigration expert said the letter sounded similar to political maneuvers in other states.
Dan Kesselbrener, National Immigration Project executive director, said the process for minors has been the same since 2002 and has never included a mandate to inform states about placements.
"The only thing that's new is the volume," he said. "To me, the only way to make sense of the letter is that he cares now because it's a bigger deal. It appears to be consistent with someone who is trying to score points against the administration."
Cathey said many of the children may be arriving in East Tennessee homes, where the Guatemalan population is large.
Children from El Salvador and Honduras are also propelling the crisis, as many flee poverty and violence, including gang conscription. The increase is particularly large among children younger than 12, the Pew Research Center reported last week.