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Merkley: ‘All sick and tired’ of COVID-19 battle

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., responds to questions on voting rights last month at the Capitol in Washington. During a virtual town hall with Jackson County residents Thursday, Merkley called Republican efforts to change voting laws in several states “an outrage.” (File photo / The Associated Press)
Inflation, immigration, environment among other topics at senator’s town hall

From inflation to immigration, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley fielded questions on a range of topics Wednesday during an online town hall meeting for Jackson County residents.

The Democratic senator holds a town hall meeting for each of Oregon’s 36 counties every year, although many became virtual meetings during the pandemic.

“It’s been a tough two years with COVID, and I hope we’re nearing the end of the tunnel. We’re seeing the numbers really drop fast now,” Merkley said.

Life may begin to look more normal now that vaccination and prior infection have created widespread resistance to the virus, he said.

“I know we’re all sick and tired of this long, long battle and all it’s entailed,” he said.

A Jackson County woman said inflation is harming residents, including people who live on Social Security retirement benefits.

Merkley said the economy is suffering supply chain shock waves as the global economy emerges from the pandemic. He acknowledged congressional passage of a massive infrastructure bill is also driving up the cost of wood, steel and other materials.

The $1.2 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes funding for roads, bridges, water system improvements, electric vehicle charging stations and more.

With gas prices up, Merkley said he hopes people will think about making their next vehicle an electric car when they see prices topping $4 per gallon.

Merkley said the proposed Build Back Better Bill would lower costs for people by making housing, child care and health care more affordable, but the bill doesn’t appear to have enough support in the Senate for passage.

Virginia Camberos of the advocacy group Unite Oregon asked why Congress isn’t talking about immigration reforms to allow undocumented workers to remain safely in America.

“We’ve got people who’ve been living here 15-20 years that are part of our community,” she said.

Camberos said many immigrant families are important to the Rogue Valley workforce, but they are having to move away, especially after the 2020 Almeda fire destroyed more than 2,500 homes from Ashland to Phoenix.

Immigrants living in the country without legal permission are not eligible for the Federal Emergency Management Agency housing aid that is helping many fire survivors get back on their feet.

Merkley said Congress passed some immigration reforms in 2013, with Republicans such as senators Marco Rubio and John McCain joining the bipartisan effort.

Changes included the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which offered temporary protection from deportation for kids and young people brought into the country without permission as children. The young people are often called “dreamers.”

Merkley said Rubio took enormous backlash for his participation in the reforms, and former President Donald Trump demonized immigrants on the campaign trail and while in office.

“We should all recognize that immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than those of us born in the United States. To claim that immigrants, as President Trump did, are the worst, most lawless group is just factually wrong,” Merkley said.

Merkley noted the Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. He sees no viable path forward for immigration reform at this time.

“There are no Republicans willing to step forward and work on these issues,” he said.

A Jackson County man said he is terrified by the rollback on voting rights underway in many states.

Merkley said 19 states are establishing strategies to make it harder to vote, especially for people who are Black, tribal members, young, poor or inner-city residents. He said Trump’s false claims that the 2020 presidential race was unfair gave permission for all the racist tendencies of the past to reemerge and be used to block targeted groups from voting.

“This is just an outrage,” Merkley said.

Several speakers during the online town hall meeting encouraged Merkley to keep working on environmental issues and preserve the right of the public and environmental groups to comment on and challenge proposed projects on public lands.

On the international front, Merkley said America must do its part to prevent one million Afghan children from starving following the United States military pullout. He said he supported the U.S. ending its war there, but Afghanistan’s people need help with food.

Merkley warned that China appears to be heading from an authoritarian regime to a totalitarian regime. He said China is crushing human rights in Hong Kong and persecuting the Muslim minority in China through enslavement, forced sterilization and taking children from their parents.

For the U.S. to be a shining light of democracy in the world, he said the nation must have a democratic system that works.

“I will continue to try and make that happen,” Merkley said.

In a separate interview with the Mail Tribune, Merkley said he is hearing about the proliferation of illegal marijuana grows in Southern Oregon and the accompanying water theft, pollution and intimidation of neighbors. He said the situation is attracting very large, dangerous and well-armed criminal organizations.

“This absolutely demands a federal partnership with the state, so I’m pushing the federal government hard to be deeply engaged in assisting the state of Oregon in taking on these illegal grows,” Merkley said.

Many in law enforcement believe Oregon voters legalized marijuana in the state and Congress legalized hemp nationally without adequate funding and staffing to regulate the industries and deter crime.

Hemp is marijuana’s look-alike, nonintoxicating cousin. Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.

Merkley said he hopes Oregon will use some of its American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief package money to take on illegal marijuana.

He said people and businesses in the legal marijuana industry in Oregon are not allowed to use the banking system. He continues to push his Safe Banking Act that so far hasn’t won approval in Congress.

“One of the things that helps hide what is going on is a lack of electronic banking transactions. And that’s because the federal government has made it illegal to provide banking services to legal cannabis operations. The retailers, the producers, the suppliers are all operating in cash. That’s perfect for organized crime,” Merkley said.

On the issue of wildfires and smoke, Merkley said he and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, have helped win passage of billions of dollars in funding to respond to wildfires and conduct thinning and prescribed burning in forests.

“We have this dilemma. We want to move quickly to put out a fire so it doesn’t spread and become a big fire. But in doing so, the result is fuels buildup in the forest,” Merkley said.

Merkley said he has introduced bills to address smoke impacts, including provisions to protect farm workers from smoke, and use schools, senior centers, libraries and other spaces as refuges from smoke.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.