U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley presents Frances Rempel and Irene Christ with a folded American flag that had been flown over the U.S. Capitol during his visit to the Vale Senior Citizen Center on Thursday, Feb. 20, for a town hall meeting. Merkley addressed topics ranging from healthcare to the census. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)

VALE - U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley visited the Vale Senior Citizen Center on Thursday, Feb. 20, for a town hall, addressing immigration, healthcare, the census and “dark” money in politics.

The stop was one of nine Merkley held around the state to update residents on his work in Congress, and to give locals a chance to have a conversation about challenges facing Oregon and the country.

Afterwards, Sandy Meisinger and Kathy Judy said what piqued their interest during the town hall was when it was brought up that the U.S. Census office in Los Angeles informed the Ontario Complete Count committee that Spanish language questionnaires would not be sent out to Hispanic households in the upcoming census because the number of Hispanic residents in Ontario doesn’t meet the criteria.

“I thought it was interesting, because that is what our culture is here,” Meisinger said of Malheur County. “We have a lot of Hispanics. Why should LA be telling us what our demographics are?”

Judy agreed, pointing out that people in Malheur County are “conservative but tolerant.”

That the news came out of Los Angeles stoked Meisinger’s ire concerning a broader lack of understanding of eastern Oregon.

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“The western side of the state doesn’t even know anything about the eastern side,” she said. “They are not even aware that there’s a different time zone.”

The microphone made its way over to Lucy Hutchens, who brought up concerns about the foster care system, and thanked the senator for blowing the whistle on the Trump administration’s policy of separating asylum seekers from their children along the U.S. border.

The child separation policy ended after the president signed an executive order in June 2018.

Merkley told the audience about when he visited a migrant detention facility and witnessed children being separated from their families.

After Merkley told the press what he had seen, the story became national news. 

“He was the first person in Washington that went to the border to find out the rumor about these kids. Or we would never would have found out,” Hutchens said.

Richard Musser, a Vale resident who once worked as a STEM professor in Alaska, said that because climate change was not mentioned during the town hall, he caught Merkley on the way out to talk with him on the topic.

“I made the comment that 50 years ago, when we were going to the moon, that the general population of the United States all believed in science, that science was moving us ahead,” Musser said. “Today, people argue about the science. They don’t believe in climate change and they argue about that. But when you look at the scientific facts, the facts are pretty clear.”

Musser said that Merkley agreed with him.

“We are doing a lot of emoting and we are not doing much thinking,” Musser said he told Merkley. “We need to realize that it has been engineered so that we don’t believe, and could question the science rather than looking at the facts.”

Jill Miller and Candace Shock drove to the town hall from Ontario.

Miller said that the town hall confirmed Merkley stands for the things she hoped he would – “working families, schooling, all of those things that make life enjoyable, but also affordable for people,” Miller said.

“And so, I appreciate his focus on that and his ability to articulate that our country is really founded on principles of law and principles of common ground, and right now we are being slowly but surely taken away towards the principle of ‘if you have money and power you get it all’ and the rest of us just have to try and put up with what’s left,” she said.

“So, I appreciate that in person he’s the same,” Miller said.

Shock said that she had frequented many of Merkley’s past town halls, and that what most stood out to her was when he spoke about his days as an exchange student in Ghana. 

“You realize, there’s somebody who’s got a lot of experience,” Shock said.

News tip? Contact reporter Joe Siess: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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