As a follow-up to the article and interview with U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley published in the June 19 edition, here are highlights from his town hall talk June 15 at Wy’east Middle School.
Merkley stressed his view that the Senate must take up, and pass, the “For The People Act,” described in the main story.
Among the questions put to Merkley was, would he accept the vice president nomination under Elizabeth Warren. The answer from a bemused Merkley: “It’s not likely to be offered, but if it was I would listen.”
Merkley spoke at length on issues of immigration and Trump’s border control and incarceration policies and practices. Merkley said there are four aspects to the problem, starting with the blockade at the border, with agents physically stopping people from entering in the first place.
Merkley noted, “That leaves them very vulnerable, with no money, no friends, and gangs and a child sex industry ready to prey on them.
“It is unacceptable we would strand children in dangerous territory,” he said, terming Trump’s immigration crackdowns “done for flimsy reasons.”
Second was the family separations; most have ended and now, thirdly, Trump is “pushing for a vast system of internment camps,” for people to be imprisoned as families for duration of the immigration status, which often take years to resolve, he said, “and could result in the government locking up children in prison with their parents for years,” Merkley said.
Fourth is the existence of child prisons, such as one called Tranillo, a child tent prison that was closed down earlier this year but held thousands of people despite those staying there having sponsors ready to take them into American communities.
“We demanded release of children at Tranillo; this worked, as the following week they released 4,000 kids there and at other centers; the total child prison population went to 15,000 to 11,000,” Merkley reported.
But the facility in Homestead, Fla., superseded Tranillo, allowing the government to accommodate 3,200 children.
‘This is corruption’
“This is a for-profit prison, where people are paid to imprison children. This is horrific. We need to shut down the for-profit motive to lock up children,” Merkley said.
He pointed out that Homestead is operated by a company known as Caliburn; officials such as former Trump White House Chief of Staff John Kelly have vested interests in Caliburn. “We have a board member being paid to lock up children,” Merkley said.
“That’s corruption, pure and simple,” Merkley said. He made headlines last June when he visited detention facilities in Texas and Florida, asking for and initially being denied access to one in Brownsville, Texas, despite his status as a Congressman. Authorities called the police on Merkley, who said he had feared he might be arrested; he later gained access to the facility.
(Kelly, also ex-Secretary of Homeland Security, helped Caliburn acquire a $341 million no-bid contract from the Department of Health and Human Services, which falls under DHS, and Kelly had joined the company’s board before the contract was awarded, according to a report in the Omaha World-Herald. The last contract was the most recent of three, collectively granting Caliburn more than half a billion dollars in federal funds in 16 months.)
Merkley also pointed to the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement, which set national standards regarding the detention, release, and treatment of all children in immigration detention and underscores the principle of family unity.
Under the Flores settlement, the government cannot keep children imprisoned for more than 72 hours, or five days in a remote area or 20 days maximum “if there is a big influx.”
“When I went to Homestead, asked how long average child was locked up, I was told two months. I asked, ‘How can that be?’ They said, ‘No one is forcing us to let them go.’
“It’s a complicated story, but in (Flores) there is a chief legal counsel who has to take issues back to a judge, and the chief lead counsel has never asked for that ruling on Homestead. They tell me they are going to ask for it any time, and I am encouraging them to do it,” Merkley said.
He called for a new way of welcoming people.
“Most individuals asking for asylum do not win, 10 percent to 20 percent because the burden of proof is very hard,” Merkley said. “You have to demonstrate you have a documented fear of devastating consequences if they are returned, but in between that time and when they must be sent back, we should greet them with a bottle of water and a smile, and treat them as worthy individuals. If they are admitted, we have given them a strong foundation to thrive.”
‘For The People Act’
“Bottom line, not everyone will win (asylum), but we should treat everyone who comes to our borders with respect and decency,” Merkley said.
One questioner at Wy’east asked Merkley about “the corruption of democracy, we’re seeing it every day. What do you see as hope there? The ability to vote, yes, but we did vote last time. It makes you feel kind of hopeless sometimes.”
Merkley said, “The ‘For The People’ Bill has passed the House, it shows the impact of elections, as it does establish requirements for individual commissions around country to stop gerrymandering in advance, and it protects the voter process, including things right out of Oregon: Voting in advance, by mail and with a paper ballot that can be recounted.
“It takes away the game on election day (with) precinct shenanigans, like you move the election staff, give false information about the polling place location, or someone accidentally locks the door.
“There were four groups targeted in the elections last November: The poor, minorities, Native Americans and college students. We saw every trick in the book. For example, one state said you have to have an ID with an expiration date: Why that clause? The state issues college ID cards without expiration dates.”
On “For The People,” Merkley said, “I’m arguing is if we get a majority who believe in the vision of the Constitution and that elections are a sacred foundation for government, we need to pass ‘For The People Act’ as a first order of business.”