Katy Nesbitt
The La Grande Observer

WALLOWA — Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) hosted two town halls in Northeast Oregon Saturday during a weekend break from Washington.

After a town hall in La Grande, the senator spoke to some 85 people at the Wallowa Senior Center.

In the course of questioning, Ron Polk, of Lostine, asked the senator about the difficulty of engaging in dialogue with those with divergent points of view. Merkley said he feels it is important that he speaks up whenever he sees injustice, even if it means getting in the middle of a divisive issue. He gave the example of the current treatment of asylum-seeking families at the U.S. southern border.

“It was a real shock to find out (about the) dramatic new policy (of) inflicting trauma onto families as a method of deterrent,” he said.

Rather than remain silent, Merkley said he visited a converted Walmart outside of Brownsville, Texas, where in June 1,500 children of families seeking asylum in the U.S. were being held. He said Republican members of Congress expressed outrage at the policy that separates children from their parents yet they were not bold enough to openly question the administration.

“They used back channels to pressure the administration because they were terrified of getting out of sync,” Merkley said.

Kathy Willett, of Wallowa, asked about officials being held responsible for separating families.

“It seems like human trafficking,” she said.

Merkley said it could be up to the courts with lawsuits filed accusing the U.S. of ignoring its international treaty responsibilities.

Instead of separating families, Merkley said there has been talk of family incarceration that he likened to internment camps.

“I’m going to fight it like hell,” he said.

Merkley said while fighting for fair immigration practices, he was reminded of the word “indivisible” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

“Almost all of us have immigrant roots and we are committed to forging unity, not dividing our community,” he said. “Let’s celebrate the indivisible part, the DNA part, of America.”

Issues closer to home were also on the senator’s mind. Before fielding questions, Merkley listed some successes for rural communities included in legislation passed by the Senate.

“In ag and forestry we have a whole new strategy and a new set of products,” said Merkley, who is known as a supporter of the Timber Innovation Act included in the 2018 Farm Bill.

See complete story in Monday's Observer