US Senator Jeff Merkley opened his town hall in The Dalles June 15, with three big issues facing the nation that he said keep him up at night: Corruption, underinvestment and carbon pollution.
Speaking at the Fort Dalles Readiness Center, Merkley said corruption was growing.
“We have a massive amount of gerrymandering across the country, a growing amount of voter intimidation and voter suppression, and we have a huge flow of dark money, Citizens United money, that has been unleashed into our electoral system,” he said. “To have all this unidentified money in our campaigns creates a concentration of power that is the exact opposite of the design of our constitution and our constitution is being badly undermined. If power is concentrated, you have government by and for the powerful. With distributed power, you have government by and for the people, and that’s what we are aiming for in this country,” he said.
The second issue is related, he said: the underinvestment in healthcare, housing, education and jobs. “Those are really the foundation for families to thrive,” he said. “We need to invest in the fundamentals.” An example of how the two issues relate is that tax cuts benefiting the wealthy alone increase corruption and decrease investment.
The third issue raised by the senator was carbon pollution and the resulting “climate chaos” it is predicted to bring. He then asked the audience to take a deep breath. “The air you just breathed has 33 percent more carbon in it than it did when I was born. No human generation has ever seen anything like that,” he said. “That is the result of the massive burning of fossil fuels for energy. We are fundamentally changing the planet.” There is not another planet available to us, he added, and “we really have to care for what we have right now.
“What we’re seeing right here in Oregon is hotter summers; longer and hotter forest fires; and diminishing snow pack, melting earlier in the spring, which means less irrigation water. We now have pine beetles breeding twice each summer. That’s great for pine beetles, but it’s bad for pine trees. Ocean acidification that comes from carbon is now so significant that we have to artificially buffer Pacific ocean water so baby oysters can survive. These are all phenomenal impacts that have occurred in just the last 20 years,” he said.
Merkley then opened the floor to questions.
The first questioner asked whether the senator supported the impeachment of President Trump.
“If you had asked me that a year ago, I would have said we should wait for the Mueller report,” he responded. Now they have the report, but it is inconclusive, Merkley said. “We don’t know yet if (the president’s actions) rise to the level of criminality.” He added that a letter to Congress, signed by 1,000 current and former federal prosecutors, said numerous offenses can be found in the report, and that at least one of those offenses would support an indictment. He said he felt Congress had a duty to investigate, and asked those in the audience supportive of further investigations to raise their hands. Many of the approximately 50 participants raised their hands, and only one raised his hand in opposition to ongoing investigations.
Responding to later questions regarding investigations of the president, he said it was unclear if a vote for impeachment by the House would trigger a hearing in the Senate. “We do have a bit of a constitutional crisis now,” he said. “They are stalling, they are stonewalling, and it will take years for the courts to decide,” he said.
He then answered questions from the audience, with individuals selected through a random ticket drawing.
War with Iran
When asked about growing tensions between Iran and the U.S., Merkley said he and others were trying to make Congress approval mandatory prior to any military engagement. “We are trying to make that explicit in the law,” he explained. “We have bipartisan support for this, I don’t know yet if we can pass it.” The legislation specifically states that the 2001 authorization for military action against Al Qaeda and Iraq do not apply to Iran, he said, and specifies that congressional authorization is required if the administration wants to go to war with Iran.
When asked about the influence of “dark money” in federal elections, Merkley said he was working to require donors be identified. “We can’t get the money out, but we can shed light on where it’s coming from,” he explained, and said legislation was being pursued that “shines a light on all the money being spent on elections, both corporate and private.”
A local activist working to end use of the regional jail in The Dalles for detention of immigrants by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) asked the senator to update his work regarding immigration and the treatment of immigrants.
Merkley said that in March of 2017, John Kelly, who was brought in as secretary of homeland security, said the administration’s strategy was that if we inflict difficulty on immigrant children and families, it will discourage people from immigrating. “There is a huge moral problem with the strategy of injuring children for any political purpose, or any purpose at all,” he said. There was pushback to the policy, and the administration stopped talking about it, Merkley said.
“But they launched a pilot project,” he added. “It’s now estimated that over 1,000 children may have been separated. This was intentionally done in a secret project.”
A year later, in 2018, the policy became a national issue following a speech by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“When I heard families were being separated and detained at the border, I didn’t believe it,“ Merkley said. He went to a processing center on the border, and found a warehouse-like room filled with 30- by 30-foot chain link cages. “When I saw those cages, and I saw those children being separated into those different cages, I just could not believe what I was seeing.”
There were boys in this cage, girls in that cage, fathers over there, mothers over there, he said. There was a nationwide outcry, and the policy was changed.
He said the practice has since been greatly reduced, although it still occurs. For example, if a parent has been convicted of driving under the influence of intoxicants, they will be separated from their children, a practice the Senator objected to. “
He said a second issue impacting immigrants is the blocking of people at the border itself. “There is a line on the middle of the bridge, and they were blocking anybody without passports or visas,” he said of a his second visit to the border. “We are part of the International Refuge Convention, we have a law that if you step across that line, you can ask for asylum. We have never before stopped people from crossing that line. This is not something we do, leave people and children stranded.”
The third issue is the internment camps, the Senator said. “The president put out an executive order last June designed to get a law that would allow a massive system of family internment camps,” he explained, likening the situation to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. “So far, we have been able to stop that legislatively,” he said.
The fourth issue endangering immigrant families is child prisons, Merkley said. “In December we had locked up 15,000 children in child prisons,” he said. Later that month, he again traveled to the border for a press conference, demanding immediate release of all the kids who already had sponsors but were not being released. “It was right before Christmas, and in this case, Trump did act,” he said, and in January the facility was closed. “They have now expanded a prison in Florida for 3,200 children, called Homestead. That is a for profit prison, and the longer they keep these kids locked up, the more they get paid. it’s about $750 per child, per day, to lock up those children.” Merkley added that John Kelly is now on the board of the company that operates that prison. “Those are the four ‘horrifics’ that we are trying to end,” he said.
Merkley said the idea that families won’t show up for asylum hearings is wrong. “Most people who apply for asylum, they show up if they have a family case management officer,” he explained. “Its much cheaper to have a case manager than to lock somebody up in prison, and it’s wrong to traumatize children, which imprisonment does, as does child separation.
“We need to use the case manager program, and treat people with respect and decency.”