TRI CITY — U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley believes immigrant families coming over the border should be treated with respect while their claims are processed. He also wants to get dark money out of politics and create clean energy jobs.
Those were among the takeaways as Merkley, D-Ore., visited his hometown Tuesday for a town hall meeting at South Umpqua High School in Tri City.
The evening started with the revelation from Douglas County Commissioner Chris Boice, in his introduction of the senator, that Merkley was technically from Tri City, rather than Myrtle Creek. Merkley lived there as a child and later in Roseburg before moving to Multnomah County.
Merkley began by honoring the South Douglas County Food Bank, and presenting its leaders with a U.S. flag that had flown over the Capitol building.
One of the first questions was about the wall President Donald Trump has proposed in response to illegal immigration at the border.
Merkley said the biggest trouble with immigration is people overstaying their visas, rather than people coming across the border. Right now about 60,000 people come across the border each month, one-third of the peak in 2000, he said. That population has changed from being predominately single men looking for work to families escaping trauma and drug gangs in Central America, he said.
“Our president painted a picture of a huge increase in people, mainly murderers and rapists. That’s not what I would say is an accurate picture,” he said.
He said they deserve to be treated with respect while their asylum claims are processed.
Arleen Neale of Myrtle Creek called out, “Who’s going to pay for it?” Merkley said it would be more efficient to install modern technology that would detect when someone crosses the border and to increase the number of border guards. A wall would only slow people down briefly, he said.
When Neale persisted, and attempted to ask another question and then continued commenting, she was shouted down by audience members who said she should wait her turn. She never got the turn, as questions were allotted at random through numbered tickets, like a raffle drawing, and her number wasn’t called.
The man whose number was called next asked Merkley if he would throw his hat into the ring to run for president. Merkley sidestepped the question. He said he wants to focus on his top three priorities wherever he can be most effective.
The first of Merkley’s stated top-three priorities is restoring government by and for the people by ending gerrymandering, voter suppression and dark money in politics. He said he’d like to see the country adopt a vote-by-mail system like Oregon’s. He also wants states to stop using vote-tallying machines that don’t leave a paper trail and could be hacked, like those made by the Diebold company, which he called the “diabolical” company.
The second priority he mentioned was giving families a solid foundation through housing, health care, education and living-wage jobs. And the third is ending carbon pollution and what he called climate chaos.
Merkley said climate change is impacting irrigation for farmers, harming streams that salmon depend on and making the Pacific Ocean more acidic. Oyster farmers are having to artificially make the water less acidic, and starfish and kelp are dying off. In the forests, warming temperatures have led to expanded pine beetle populations and increased forest fires, he said.
At the same time, he said, clean energy from solar and wind power has become cheaper than burning coal and competitive with the cost of natural gas. He said people used to feel there was a war between what’s best for the economy and what’s best for the environment, but that’s changed.
“Now, renewable energy is the right thing for the economy and the right thing for the environment,” he said.
About an hour before the town hall meeting, Merkley toured a solar field at the nearby Tri City Water and Sanitation headquarters with Sam Carter, regional business manager for Pacific Power; John Craig, of Craig Electric; and Paul Wilborn, manager of the sanitary authority, who said once the system’s hooked up it will provide all the energy for pumping water at the station.
While there, Merkley told The News-Review he hopes to see a Green New Deal that would provide tens of millions of jobs while getting America off fossil fuels by 2050.
For now, he acknowledged, it’s not a bill that would pass, because the Senate is controlled by billionaire oil industrialists the Koch brothers, who have invested millions in Senate races.
“You want to understand what happened in the Senate, just look to see where the Koch brothers stand,” he said.
However, he said he’s hopeful the bill will soon get more attention in the House.
Asked at the town hall meeting about the proposed Pacific Connector natural gas pipeline, he drew cheers from the audience when he said he opposed it. He cited environmental harm from pipes leaking methane and the use of eminent domain.
“In its essence this is a foreign corporation, private profit operation. It is not a public good, and no landowner should have to give up their land if they don’t want to sell it,” he said.