U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) continued his push for comprehensive immigration reform and humane treatment of people seeking asylum.
At town halls Sunday in Pendleton and Boardman, he touted the Senate’s 2013 immigration bill that died in the House of Representatives. It would have strengthened border security while creating pathways to citizenship for youth whose parents brought them into the United States illegally. Immigration reform had another shot in 2017, he said, when President Donald Trump told lawmakers to bring him a “love bill” on immigration. Trump promised to “take the heat” and sign the bill.
Two days later — after taking some heat from right wing press — the president backed out.
Merkley said immigration reform could rise again after the November elections, but he didn’t get into how it might look.
Merkley faced mostly supportive crowds at the two events — around 75 people came to the Pendleton meeting and less than 20 to the Port of Morrow. But he hit on similar topics at both, including his visit to the border in Texas to see first-hand what was happening to families seeking asylum.
Merkley said he found it hard to believe policymakers would separate children from parents as a deterrent to illegal immigration, but that’s indeed what Attorney General Jeff Sessions said was the goal. He said the administration created a “big mess,” and after a belated decision to change the policy, it is now just incarcerating families who have applied for legal asylum.
“Family incarceration is what we did in World War II with Japanese-Americans,” he said.
And the whole scene is unnecessary, he said. Customs and Immigration Services had a Family Case Management Program to process asylum seekers, until the Trump administration spiked it. The program provided asylum seekers with someone who spoke their native language, monitored them and kept them on track for hearings. Merkley said the Homeland Security inspector general report found participants in the program showed up for asylum hearings nearly 100 percent of the time.
Merkley also said the confirmation of the next Supreme Court justice should wait not just until after the election, but until special counsel Robert Mueller concludes the Russia investigation. The senator also pounded on the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision from 2010 on Citizens United, which decided political spending is a form of free speech under the First Amendment. President Thomas Jefferson said the heart of the Constitution is giving equal voice to the people, Merkley asserted, and the Citizens United decision did away with that principal.
Protecting Medicare and Social Security were top issues from questioners at the events. Merkley said he and others are fighting for health care and to keep Social Security solvent.
On the road
Merkley and his team on Friday visited the lumber mill in John Day.
He and Oregon’s senior U.S. senator, Ron Wyden, also a Democrat, supported lengthening forest stewardship contracts for logging, which kept the mill open. Merkley said the mill now has two dozen openings and is looking to hire.
And Sunday morning he toured the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center, Adams. He and Wyden worked to include funding for ag research in the farm bill, which passed the Senate in late June on a 86-11 vote. The bill now is in the conference committee to work out differences in the House version.
During a meeting with reporters, Merkley said staunching the flow of immigrants has not harmed wheat country, probably due to the mechanized nature of harvest and production. But certainly other crops feel the pinch.
“A lot of folks who would normally show up are not showing up,” Merkley said. “That’s a big problem.”
Merkley touched on these topics and others when he met Friday with the East Oregonian editorial board. He spoke of visiting the Hidalgo Port of Entry in Texas, where families seeking to make asylum claims had to camp out on the bridge between the U.S. and Mexico. He recalled meeting a young mother fleeing a Honduras drug cartel. He said under Sessions’ new rules, Customs and Immigration will deny her claim because she is fleeing the cartel and not the government.
Merkley has made a point of visiting every county in Oregon each year he has been a U.S. senator. This latest round started Thursday in Clackamas, Friday over to John Day, Saturday in La Grande and Wallowa and wrapped up Sunday in Pendleton and Boardman. The Morrow County town hall was his last of the year and marked his 360th since taking the office.