Sitting in his Portland office with Mount Hood glittering behind him, Jeff Merkley thumbs through his iPhone photos. Images shot through chain-link fences show people huddled together. Here’s a family lying side by side on a green floor mat, arms touching; here’s a father, cradling his infant.
These pictures are from detention centers at the US-Mexico border, the place that now defines the political profile of Oregon’s junior United States senator, elected in 2008. Last year, amid the furor over the Trump administration’s policy of separating families at the border, Merkley traveled to visit facilities where thousands of migrants are being held. What he saw spurred him to shift the national conversation about Trump’s xenophobic policies.
Merkley’s new Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act has support from 40 senators, including every Senate Democrat running for president; it would end family separation and provide health and legal safeguards for minor migrants. It’s his latest Trump-era salvo: in 2017, his Senate speeches and media blasts against #45 generated unlikely buzz that the once-obscure Oregonian might be a presidential contender. Now, focus on the border is his calling card.
In June 2018, Merkley was denied entry to a former Walmart being used to house children in Brownsville, Texas. Local police even showed up, as millions watched on Facebook Live. Merkley’s visited the border seven times, most recently bringing 12 other senators, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and fellow Oregonian Ron Wyden. (Wyden had his own viral moment when he helped a pregnant asylum seeker cross the border to get urgent medical attention.)
Merkley’s motive? The title of his new book is a clue: America Is Better Than This came out in August. Can he make real change? We asked. He answered.
Why focus on the border? Jeff Sessions gave a speech [in May 2018, when he was attorney general] on migrants where he said the administration would have a “zero tolerance” approach. That implies being tough on crime. But I said, this isn’t tough on crime. This is a direct infliction of trauma on children. This can’t be. It’s unsupportable in any moral or religious or ethical code. And someone on my team said, well, there’s one way to find out. So that Sunday, I flew down to the border. Two dramatic things happened. One was to be the first member of Congress to see children sorted into these 30-by-30-foot wire cages. The second was to try to get into the Walmart and be turned away. That drew a lot more attention than if they gave me a tour.
When you eventually got in, were you surprised? Advocates had told me that hundreds of boys were in that facility—maybe a thousand. I said that on Facebook Live, then felt bad about it. Because I thought, no way are there a thousand boys in there. That’s gotta be a gross exaggeration. But two weeks later, when I went, it turned out they had just short of 1,500 boys in that Walmart. They had a soccer field for the kids to play on. Think about how long it takes 1,500 boys to share a soccer field. They were totally unprepared to deal with that number of children. I fault both the administration, and the nonprofit that ran it, Southwest Keys. The more kids they took, the more they got paid. We should have real oversight of the organizations that work on these issues.
What have you learned on subsequent trips? I went with the Hispanic caucus to explore why two children from Guatemala died in custody—we tried to understand the health care response. I went to the internment camps. I visited Port Isabel, outside Brownsville. I met mothers who had their children taken away—one of the most heart-wrenching experiences of my life: 10 women, many sobbing through the entire thing, not knowing where their children were, not knowing if they’d ever see them again.
They wouldn’t allow me to talk to anyone when I went alone. When you’re with a dozen senators, they couldn’t stop us. They tried to take away our cameras. We just ignored them.
Do Oregonians object to your focus on an issue playing out so far away? I do a lot of town halls. People are incredibly concerned about this across Oregon. People come up to me crying, thanking me for being involved. It’s our tax money. It’s our government. It’s our land being used to harm refugees, harm children. And people are not OK with that.
How do you expect to pass anything to do with migration? The key will be finding the leverage to attach it to something that is must-pass for Republicans. The challenge is that the president has deeply polarized immigration. My Republican colleagues who agree with me are reluctant to take any stand, because it will look like they’re criticizing the president.
Why did you decide not to run for president? I looked at it very closely. I spent a lot of time traveling the country, kicking off fundraisers and party caucuses. And I loved the living rooms. I didn’t love the big speeches. And under Oregon law, I had to choose between the Senate race or White House race. It would have created a lot of chaos here. I can’t risk losing a seat [to a candidate] that would back up Trump. And you have to have an enormous amount of money, and there were folks who already had it, or could raise it.
Whoever’s in the Oval Office cannot succeed if we don’t have a reform of the Senate. The Republicans changed the rules to get their agenda done. Why shouldn’t we change the rules to get our agenda done? I felt like I had a better chance of making a difference by reforming the Senate and fighting for that vision. It just seemed like the right thing to do in terms of dedicating yourself to making the world a better place.