Wyden, Merkley still back 'dreamers'
Oregon's U.S. senators, both Democrats, offered differing prospects — but also reaffirmed their support — for shielding young undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley made their comments Sunday (Jan. 14) at separate town hall meetings, Wyden at Camp Withycombe in Clackamas and Merkley at Parkrose High School.
Both did say they were more hopeful that a pending extension of federal spending authority, due to expire Friday, will stabilize funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program, community health clinics and disaster costs of major wildfires.
They agreed that prospects for immigration legislation have been thrown into question by comments from President Donald Trump, aside from Trump's reported use of a vulgarity to describe some countries as potential sources of nonwhite immigrants.
"Until the middle of last week, I thought we were right on the cusp of having an agreement on immigration again," Wyden said at his meeting attended by about 100. "The comments that were made (by Trump) clearly chipped away at that trust."
Trump has since denied using the vulgarity, and two Republican senators say they did not hear him say it, but a Democratic senator said Trump used it more than once.
Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, who was presenting a potential immigration compromise at the White House meeting, said: "America is an idea, not a race."
"It's not exactly clear what the president's goals are here or what the Republicans in the House and Senate are willing to do," Merkley said during a brief interview before his town hall. "But the fact that we had a compromise worked out in the Senate was a positive sign — and I want to hang onto that positiveness as a foundation for getting things done.
"I am hopeful. Optimistic might be a little strong."
Trump's about-face from his stance of two days earlier may have doomed any chance for a congressional agreement on the fate of 800,000 immigrants — 11,000 of them in Oregon — brought to the United States illegally as children.
Trump has ordered an end to a 2012 program by his predecessor, known as Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, that shields "dreamers" from deportation and enables them to get two-year work permits. A federal judge has suspended that order, which was to have taken effect March 5.
"But it's not going to be dead to me," Wyden said.
"We've got to get this right. This is an issue of fixing a system of immigration that doesn't work for anybody."
A broader fix?
Wyden said he prefers the broader immigration legislation that the Senate passed but the House shelved in 2013, and that was based on a 2007 proposal worked out by Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy.
The 2007 proposal, which died in the Senate because of Republican opposition, would have give legal status and a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, including the "dreamers." But they would have had to pay fines of $2,000 and back taxes, and demonstrate proficiency in English.
Wyden voted for the 2013 bill, as did Merkley, who became a senator in 2009.
During his town hall, which drew more than 500 people, Merkley asked rhetorically: "What do you want as our national symbol — a thousand-mile wall or the Statue of Liberty?"
Merkley referred to the border wall with Mexico that Trump wants to build — Trump has asked $18 billion from Congress for what he once said Mexico would pay for — and the inscription at the base of the statue in New York Harbor from Emma Lazarus' sonnet "The New Colossus."
As Merkley recited it, the inscription reads in part: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free … I lift my lamp beside the golden door."
At Wyden's meeting, George Bickford of Clackamas, a 95-year-old Navy veteran, said he was sympathetic to the United States offering a temporary haven for some people.
"But when they get here, we also need to send them home," Bickford said.
"They need to go home because they are not becoming American citizens the way we want to see them as American citizens."
Wyden responded by telling a story about his parents, who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Peter Wyden taught himself English, but Ron Wyden said the Army initially rejected his father for Army service in World War II based on poor physical condition.
Peter Wyden was finally enrolled in the Army's psychological warfare division in 1944 as the Western Allies invaded Nazi-held Europe. He was proficient in German and helped write anti-Nazi propaganda.
Of the current immigrants, Wyden said, "A lot of these people were brought to this country when they were a few months old. They have done nothing wrong. A lot of them have perfect grades, they are working two jobs, they are sending money home to families.
"A lot of them have told me that what they want to do is be able to stay and serve in the military, in our police and as first responders."
"We ought to do something good for the United States that makes common sense."
Wyden on other issues
On other issues, Wyden made these comments:
• Marijuana enforcement: Wyden said U.S. Attorney Billy Williams has told him that federal enforcement priorities in Oregon will be largely unchanged despite a recent directive from Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The directive lifted 2013 guidelines, known as the Cole memo, that focus on barring access by minors, growing on public lands, diverting marijuana to the black market or to states where it is still illegal, and stopping involvement by organized crime.
"What Jeff Sessions is really showing on the issue is that he believes in states' rights if he thinks the state is right," Wyden said. "I have the quaint idea that when the people of Oregon vote for something, it ought to stand for something. We're going to be pushing back on anybody who tries to throw the will of the voters of Oregon into the trash can."
• Tax overhaul: Wyden, as top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, led the fight against a bill that passed both chambers with only Republican support and was signed by President Donald Trump on Dec. 22.
Wyden said he helped craft a couple of previous proposals that would have helped middle-class families more. The final product was weighted toward corporations and high-income households.
"What we hear from our business leaders is that they want certainty and predictability," he said. "If it's all one-sided with one party, the one thing you know for sure is that you will have certainty and predictability that both sides will keep going at it."
• Offshore drilling: Wyden said he was suspicious when the Interior Department backed away from leases after objections from the governor of Florida, a Republican. "I am going to insist that the process be followed," Wyden said, or to let other governors exercise a veto — including the three Democrats from West Coast states opposed to drilling.
• Warrantless surveillance: The House renewed it for six years, but in the Senate, "I think it's going to be a different debate," said Wyden, a longtime critic of federal agency practices as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
A temporary extension of that authority ends in April.
"A lot of Democrats in the House voted for the bill," Wyden said. "A lot of them now are asking some hard questions about challenging the president but voting to give him the power to do unlimited, warrantless surveillance."
— Peter Wong