HELENA — From the Southern border crisis to the economy to the cost of college, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester answered questions from an audience of more than 100 people at a free-wheeling town hall in Helena Tuesday morning.
The Democrat and senior senator from Montana, who won re-election last year, also took some shots at the Trump administration and GOP leadership in the U.S. Senate, saying they aren’t addressing real problems facing the nation.
“I think the problem is (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell,” he said, when asked whether Democrats could accomplish anything if the Senate remained in GOP hands after 2020. “He is really not doing much on a lot of the issues that are important from a policy standpoint. … If we could bring some of this stuff to the floor, it would pass.”
While much of Tuesday’s discussion at the Helena College-University of Montana campus focused on Montana issues, the question of treatment of refugees and other immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border came up almost immediately.
Michele Herrington of Helena asked Tester what he or his staff are doing about children who “are hungry, without their moms and dads, and they’re desperately poor, and hungry, and filthy.”
Tester said he’s pushing the Trump administration to process the families and children and get them out of camps and holding areas near the border — but, mostly, he’s trying to get information on what’s really happening.
“They’ve assured us they’re moving the kids out and the average stay is only like two weeks, 21 days,” he said. “But I’m not sure I believe that.
“But they need to be with their parents,” Herrington interrupted.
“Absolutely,” Tester replied. “They need to be reunited as a starting point, because that’s not what we’re about as a country.”
But when an audience member suggested that the holding facilities should be closed, the U.S. Immigrations and Custom Enforcement abolished and the United States should have “open borders,” Tester said he doesn’t support that.
“I don’t think that the majority of Montanans would say, `Let them come into the United States free, we’re going to open up the border,’” he said. “That would be a totally different way to go, that I would not support. … I just don’t think that open borders work.”
When an audience member asked whatever happened to federal infrastructure funding, Tester said the problem is “where do you get the money” — and that the Republican-backed tax cut bill of 2017 has undercut any initiative that would take money.
“I know some in this room really thought (the tax cut) was a good deal, but the truth is, the tax bill we passed put us in a situation of structural imbalance that is not going to allow us to do things we need to do, like make college affordable, like build infrastructure,” he said. “Which, by the way, those two things will address the economy in the 21st Century.”
Tester also said college affordability and student debt are huge issues — about which Congress is doing next to nothing, and maybe even making it worse.
He said his college costs in Montana in the 1970s were “so damn close to being free, it was free,” and that the country needs to move in that direction.
“You can’t have kids coming out of school with 20, 30, 40, 50, $60,000 in debt,” Tester said. “By the way, the folks who are predators with the damn credit cards that are getting hold of these kids, saying go ahead and ring up the bill, pay me later? We ought to be putting those folks in jail.”
The crowd responded with perhaps its loudest stretch of applause of the morning.