Plane believed to be carrying migrant children lands at Tennessee airport

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A plane believed to be carrying unaccompanied migrant children in the custody of the U.S. government landed just before midnight at McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Video captured by Nexstar’s WATE 6 shows some children boarding two charter buses from Malone Busing, a company based in Cleveland, Tennessee. Other children were met by unidentified adults. A few adults were seen receiving a packet before leaving the airport on their own accord with at least one child, sometimes more. 

An adult at the airport said that they were from Chattanooga. 

A photo taken May 27, 2021, shows two Malone Busing charter buses parked alongside a plane believed to be carrying migrant children that landed at McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville.
(Staff Photo/ WATE)

Officials with the White House, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, city leaders in Long Beach, California, and their Joint Information Center, as well as McGhee Tyson Airport either declined knowing the purpose of the flight or its passengers, or did not respond to questions.

However U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Press Secretary Luisana Perez Fernandez issued this statement:

“ORR’s mission is to safely care for unaccompanied children until they can be unified with a vetted sponsor, usually a parent or close relative. As part of the unification process, ORR is currently facilitating travel for the children in ORR’s custody to their sponsors to prevent any delays.

Their parents and relatives are located across the United States, and ORR contractors use various transportation modes to unite unaccompanied children with their families, including air and ground transportation options, taking into account child safety and wellness, travel time, and cost-effectiveness.”

A search of flight records shows a World Atlantic Airlines flight left Long Beach Airport, in Long Beach, California, around 4:25 Pacific Time and landed at McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville at 11:19 p.m. Eastern Time.

More than 700 migrant children had been staying at the Long Beach Convention Center in California as of May 6, according to Nexstar’s KTLA. The city of Long Beach, California, has been working with HHS in placing migrant children as part of the Biden administrations’ reunification plan and keeping track of the remaining children at its emergency shelter in the convention center.

A screenshot of a FlightAware.com live flight map shows a World Atlantic Airlines plane traveling from Long Beach, California, to Knoxville, Tennessee, on May 27, 2021.

Tennessee lawmakers learned on May 21 that migrant children were being brought into the state through Chattanooga. Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty and Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, supported by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, sent a letter to the secretaries of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security seeking information on the management of unaccompanied migrant children in federal custody and the facilities being used to house them.

The Chattanooga shelter for immigrant children is not new, however -– the Associated Press reports that it was licensed by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services under the Trump administration, a year before Gov. Lee tweeted last week that the Biden administration needs to “secure the border & stop scattering children across the country.”

The White House earlier this week acknowledged that unaccompanied migrant children were being transported through Tennessee to meet up with family or sponsors. The Biden administration says its goal is to connect the children seeking asylum at the border with sponsors; they were using a place in Chattanooga to house and transport some of the children.

Children that arrive at the shelter are often brought in as a temporary measure until the can be placed with relatives or sponsors.

Online records held by the Office of Refugee Resettlement show 913 migrant children have found a home with sponsors in Knox, Sevier, Hamilton, Davidson, Shelby and Rutherford counties since October 2020. A total of 1,111 have been placed with sponsors in Tennessee.

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