The audience for Jeff Merkley’s Thursday town hall was sitting at the Pendleton Early Learning Center, but for some of them, their minds were more than 1,000 miles away at the U.S-Mexican border.
Rather than ask Oregon’s junior senator a question, a woman in the audience used her time to thank Merkley for thinking about the “precious babies” in the immigrant detention centers at the border, eliciting applause from the rest of the crowd.
Merkley made a name for himself when he took a trip to the border and tried to visit a detention center in Texas, but was turned away. A video of Merkley’s encounter went viral, and Merkley has since become a prominent critic of the Trump administration’s immigration policies like child separation.
Merkley told the more than 60 people who attended the town hall that on a follow-up trip to the southern part of the border, he learned that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents were physically blocking pedestrian entrances to prevent Central American immigrants from claiming asylum on U.S. soil.
Despite the attention he’s received for his stances on immigration, it’s not one of Merkley’s top priorities. But climate change is.
Merkley said “climate chaos” was creating adverse effects on forest and agriculture by increasing the likelihood of natural disasters like floods and fires.
Prompted by an audience member, Merkley said he supported the principles of the Green New Deal, a contentious resolution that calls for the country to transition to 100 percent renewable, zero-emission sources.
Audience member Anton Chiono thanked Merkley for his climate comments, and then pivoted to ask him how society should deal with a “post-facts era.”
Merkley started talking about how the Russians were manipulating Americans through social media before admitting that he didn’t have a definitive solution for the issue besides taking in different sources of news and being suspicious of outrageous coverage.
“I don’t have any magic,” he said.
Another of Merkley’s priorities was trying to prevent the “corrosion” of the Constitution, which was being threatened by issues like voter suppression, gerrymandering, and “dark money.”
Inspired by a question about the decline in social studies and civics education in schools, Merkley said he had been thinking about the idea of lowering the voting age to 17 so all high school seniors got the chance to vote after taking a civics class.
He mentioned a bill in the Oregon Legislature that would lower the voting age to 16 and polled the audience about the concept. Among the smattering of people who voted, it seemed like a majority favored the idea.
“Here’s the idea: If students know in high school that they can vote, does that lead to a whole curriculum around the responsibilities and getting people to vote, does it become a lifelong habit?” he said. “That would be the interesting thing to ask. I don’t know the answer to that.”
Although Merkley mostly spoke on national topics, he did touch on a few local issues.
Elizabeth Scheeler, a former Merkley staffer, asked if he was aware of the flooding that was caused in Pendleton in the areas along McKay Creek.
Merkley said his office would help facilitate a meeting with local stakeholders and the managers of the McKay Dam.