Concern for children in America’s classrooms, homes and border security permeated discussion at a town hall with Sen. Jeff Merkley in Boardman on Saturday.
The senator advocated for more education funding, more early childhood education opportunities and changes in the way the country handles minors crossing the southern border in response to several questions from a crowd of about two dozen people at the SAGE Center.
Doctors and lawyers with access to child detention centers at the border have described young children packed into facilities without access to clean clothes, soap, toothbrushes, sleeping mats and other items. One town hall attendee described the government’s treatment of unaccompanied minors and those taken from their parents as an “abomination” and asked Merkley what Congress and everyday citizens can do.
Merkley said he was deeply troubled by the reports and what he had seen in his own visits to the border, including a former Walmart that had been built to house 300 boys but instead held 1,500. He said the for-profit businesses that run the detention facilities on behalf of the government were paid $750 per child per day, giving them no incentive to find placements with family or foster homes.
“They have every incentive to keep kids in there as long as they can,” he said.
He advocated for a return of the Family Case Management Program, which assigned caseworkers to families who were considered low flight risks and helped them get set up with housing and other necessities while they waited for their hearing. The program had a near 100% success rate in getting families to show up to court, but was canceled by the Trump administration for reasons Merkley said he hasn’t been able to determine.
He said the federal government needed to provide the resources to get people of all ages seeking asylum through the hearing process much more quickly. The vast majority of people who seek asylum are turned away, he said — only about 20,000 people were granted asylum last year.
“Regardless of whether they win or lose we should still treat them with dignity in between,” he said.
He also said the country needed to stop turning away unaccompanied minors at the border, leaving them at the mercy of sex traffickers and other bad actors.
Others at Saturday’s town hall were concerned about children who are struggling in America’s education system.
Maureen McGrath, director of Umatilla Morrow Head Start, asked about federal initiatives on the horizon for early childhood education. Rick and Susan Scheibner, who both work for Hermiston School District, described children coming to school with more mental health problems and more trauma than a decade ago. Susan said she saw economically stressed parents making tough choices, and the effect on their children.
Merkley said the federal government needed to directly invest in education but also help families by cutting wasteful spending and focusing on basics such as health care and housing.
He said when he was growing up his family purchased a home worth the equivalent of two years of his father’s salary as a mechanic. Today the same type of home in the same town costs five to six times a mechanic’s annual salary, he said.
“It isn’t that the families in my neighborhood changed, it’s that the economics have changed,” he said.
Merkley also said he was a proponent of a combined effort of state and federal spending to serve more children with early childhood education programs like Head Start. He said research showed that investments in a child’s formative years paid off many times over when they became a more productive member of society and avoided trouble like incarceration.
Attendees at Saturday’s town hall also asked about keeping Social Security solvent, taking away subsidies for fossil fuels, preventing foreign interference in elections, slowing climate change and holding powerful tech companies like Facebook accountable.
Merkley said if the government removed the cap on the level of wages subject to the Social Security tax or placed a Social Security tax on capital gains the program would be solvent for many decades into the future with money for increased benefits.
He expressed support for incentivizing clean energy and energy-efficiency upgrades to homes and agreed with the citizen who advocated removing the subsidies for oil and gas companies.
Merkley said he supports passage of the bipartisan DETER Act, which lays out stiff sanctions for any foreign country found meddling in the United States’ elections. Beyond foreign interference, he feels Congress has a duty to tackle problems he believes are eroding the country’s democracy.
“We’re seeing a lot of gerrymandering, a lot of voter suppression and intimidation and a lot of dark money in campaigns,” he said. “It’s got to be a real priority to take those on.”