Alyssa Sutton

She had a two-month-old baby with her while sitting in an interview room on the Mexican/American border. She had escaped from Honduras where a cartel was threatening her and her family’s lives after they were unable to pay back a loan to a bank with gang affiliations. She had traveled from Honduras through Guatemala and up into Mexico and along the way gave birth to her baby, who was now 65 days old.

Once there, she was told she couldn’t cross into the U.S. where she was hoping to seek asylum. Every day she walked across the pedestrian bridge and tried to make it into the States. Every day she was told no. Finally, she did something drastic. She noticed that there was another bridge — this one for cars, and while the cars were being stopped at the border, there were workers who were cleaning the car windows as they drove through, and they weren’t being stopped. So, clutching her baby, she picked up a squeegee and began washing windows, car after car until she stepped onto American soil.

It’s the story that Andrea told Sen. Jeff Merkley as he sat in an interview room with her on the border at the port of entry after President Donald Trump enforced the Zero-Tolerance Act.

“One in five families who seek asylum will be granted (it),” Merkley (D-Oregon) said in a town hall meeting July 7 at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande. “They should be treated well, and if for some reason they don’t make asylum and we send them home, there’s no reason they should be mistreated while they’re here. There’s absolutely no reason they shouldn’t be treated with dignity and respect.”

Merkley told the story in response to a community member’s questions regarding immigration, one of many subjects he addressed while holding his 359th town hall meeting as a U.S. senator Saturday morning.

Among other topics discussed were Idaho Power’s controversial Boardman to Hemingway Transmission Line Project, which is supposed to provide additional electrical capacity between the Pacific Northwest and the Intermountain West regions, but will cross through Union County.

A few community members acknowledged that while it is more a local than federal issue, they requested Merkley’s assistance in putting a stop to the project. Peter Barry, of La Grande, told Merkley that his family has had the privilege of owning timber and grazing land across three counties.

“This (project) is completely unnecessary,” Barry said. “It’s just a profit grab. They make money off of projects like this. There will be 180-foot towers that would go right by our town. We’re trying to invite tourists in and these are going to destroy our view.”

Jim Kreider, of La Grande, also spoke on the project. He asked for Merkley’s help since Kreider believes that the project is in fact a federal issue.

While Merkley urged the audience to contact their local representatives regarding the project he also said in a few weeks he will have a staff member, Jessica Key, based locally and she would be able to assist them in getting in touch with policy makers in Washington, D.C.

Quentin Durfee, a student who was recently appointed to the EOU Board of Trustees by Gov. Kate Brown and is considering medical school, asked about affordable higher education.

Merkley is a co-signer on the Debt-Free College Act, legislation that is intended to help reverse the growing student debt crisis in the U.S.

“It used to be you could work hard in the summer and pretty much pay for college,” Merkley said. “Not anymore.”

If signed into law, the Debt-Free College Act would establish a state and federal partnership that provides a dollar-for dollar federal match to state higher education appropriations in exchange for a commitment to help students pay for the full cost of attendance without having to take on debt.

“Anyone who has student loans –– and many of those loans are refinanced at 6 to 8 to 10 percent –– could refinance those loans at the same low rate that the big banks pay when they borrow from the federal government,” Merkley said.

Other topics discussed with the fairly large and supportive audience Saturday morning included Social Security, the rising cost of health care, the electoral college, rural housing development, timber and agriculture legislation, climate change and national security.

“How do we change the definition of national security?” Kreider asked. “Everything Trump is doing is based on national security and we’re ticking off (our allies), but it’s in this definition of national security. “

Merkley responded by saying that U.S. security has been greatly enhanced by working closely with allies who share similar values and a commitment to the duty of democracy.

“(National security) has rarely been enhanced by shutting those allies (out) and cozying up to dictators,” he said. “However you choose to define (national security), alliances make us stronger in the world.”

While Merkley was not asked, nor did he broach the subject, there has been speculation that he will consider a 2020 presidential run. The Oregonian reported on June 23 that Merkley is “exploring the possibility” and wouldn’t necessarily stay out of the race even if his close allies, Sens. Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, also joined.

Merkley’s profile in D.C. has been climbing after a face-off with President Trump over immigration.

“Americans among all people in the world know about immigration because all of us have family histories of immigration,” Merkley told the La Grande audience. “I want to see us restore that respectable treatment of individuals from the time they arrive to the time they have their asylum hearing and we either welcome them to our country or have to send them home.”