A crowd of about 275 Central Oregon residents turned out for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden's town hall Feb. 22, at the Madras Performing Arts Center.
Constituents whose ticket numbers were drawn were able to ask questions at the event, which was likely the largest Madras town hall ever held. Concerns ranged from the crackdown on illegal immigrants, to education, to health care, to the underrepresentation of Native Americans.
Carol Leone, executive director of the Museum at Warm Springs, wondered about the potential for cuts to the arts under the current administration.
Suggesting that instead of stressing the importance of STEM curriculum — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — Wyden said he would like to see "Arts" added to make it STEAM.
"I think arts happen to be one of the things that keep people in school," he said.
A parent of two LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) kids said that her children are harassed at school and asked how Wyden could help.
"Trump is prepared to roll back protection for LGBT students; I will fight that every inch of the way," said Wyden, paraphrasing a famous quote, "Nobody is free if everyone isn't free."
Madras High School had a large contingent of students at the meeting, including Hunter Onstad, a member of the Warm Springs Youth Council, who commented that he was representing Native Americans — the most underrepresented group in the U.S.
After offering Onstad an internship, Wyden agreed, "There's no question Native Americans are underrepresented. We're working very hard on that." His office is looking into Native American health care, housing and economic development.
Onstad also asked how Wyden would protect Oregon's status as a sanctuary state for immigrants and refugees.
Wyden said that the issue of immigration is not a Democratic or Republican issue. "First and foremost, we are a nation of immigrants," he said.
"Thousands of parents around the world are making sacrifices; they want their kids to be able to come to the freest, most open place in the world," said Wyden, who described himself as "a first-generation Jewish kid."
His father, Peter Wyden, fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and emigrated to New York. Even though his father "was overweight and had flat feet, he talked his way into serving" in the U.S. Army, said Wyden, who is very proud of his father's accomplishments. His father convinced the military that he could write anti-Nazi propaganda pamphlets in German to be dropped in Germany, which he did, inspiring his son with his patriotism.
"I never thought I'd have an opportunity like I have in public service," said Wyden.
After pointing out that 75 percent of Warm Springs residents are under 18, MHS student Malia Collins, also of Warm Springs, had a question for Wyden.
"How confident can we be that you have our back?" she asked.
Wyden said that he believes that he has a long track record of votes favoring tribal empowerment. "I always think that deeds and actions are more important than words," he said. "I've cast a lot of tough votes."
In response to a question about protecting land and the environment, Wyden said that he's very much opposed to selling off or privatizing Central Oregon forests.
Wyden was among the sponsors of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which will ensure stable funding for forest fires. "There are lots of fires," he said. "The government (U.S. Forest Service) ends up borrowing from the prevention fund to put fires out."
Regarding Ryan Zinke, a Republican U.S. congressman from Montana, who has been nominated by the president for the position of secretary of the interior, Wyden said, "I think we have reason to be a little bit hopeful. I met with him and I'm still reviewing his record."
Savannah Holliday, of Warm Springs, an MHS student who also serves on the Warm Springs Youth Council, asked how to make Indian Health Service more efficient.
"I was talking about rural health care yesterday in Bend," said Wyden. "Without rural health care, you can't have good rural life."
Holliday told the senator that there's a saying in Warm Springs that "You can't get sick after June, because that's when the funding runs out."
Classifying such funding as a "moral concern," Wyden commented, "If young people miss out on those services, we're going to be picking up the pieces for years. If we miss early prevention services, we'll pay and pay and pay for years."
Dan Carlson, a retired, disabled U.S. Air Force veteran of 21 years, expressed concern about getting affordable day care for his children, noting that illegal immigrants seem to have more access to programs.
"I moved back here to farm," said Carlson, adding that he was promised good health care and benefits, but can't even afford housing.
Carlson said that he supports legal immigration, but programs should not be for illegal immigrants.
Reiterating that "None of us are free unless all of us are free," Wyden said that there are many farmers and hotels that need those workers. "We can continue to go after them, or we can fix it."
Shoring up the borders and enforcing the laws on the books are important, he said, but suggested that the 10 million undocumented immigrants in the country today should be able to come forward voluntarily, pay a fine, show that they know English, and then go to "the end of the immigration line."
"Some say that's amnesty," said Wyden. "We're better than that; we all bleed red, white and blue."
With respect to criminals, Wyden said he is committed to the rule of law. "If somebody has committed a crime, they're going to be deported ... end of discussion."
Responding to another question from an immigrant, Wyden said that if illegal immigrants are sent back where they came from, restaurants, hotels and agriculture will suffer.
"A lot of farmers tell me that even if wages were vastly higher, they would still have trouble getting workers," he said. "We need to knock off the blame game and get serious about fixing things. I'm open to alternative ideas; I don't have all the answers."
Bend resident Steve Paulding said he has concerns about the executive branch of the federal government and its ties to Russian government.
Wyden, who is a member of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said that he is leading the committee on investigation.
"Here's why it's a big deal," he said. "Vladimir Putin is the head of the Russian government and has been involved in the Ukraine, Crimea, poisoning journalists, the KGB."
In the past, if another country had interfered in a U.S. election, Republican or Democratic presidents "would be taking strong action," said Wyden. "This president has had nothing critical to say about the Russians."
Reports of the president's financial ties to Russia "give rise to questions about whether this president is putting his interests above U.S. interests," he said, adding that if the president released his tax returns, as all presidents for the past 40 years have done, it would be easier to determine whether or not there's a conflict.
Wyden introduced a bill called the "Presidential Tax Transparency Act of 2017," which would require public disclosure of tax returns.
Thanks to the "free press," Wyden said, Michael Flynn, the president's national security advisor, came under investigation for his ties to Russia and resigned Feb. 13, after only three weeks on the job.
"I'm convinced that we need to have Michael Flynn walk into an open meeting, raise his right hand, and tell people what's going on," said Wyden. "I'm not going to let this matter get swept under the rug."
At the close of the two-hour meeting, Wyden said that the meeting had been "one of the best," with good questions and no insults. "Nobody was prescreened, asked to come, silenced ... Come one, come all. We did it the Oregon way."