The treatment of children and families detained along the southern border was top of mind for Montanans who came to a town hall held by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in Helena on Tuesday.
Tester, a Democrat who was reelected to his third term in the U.S. Senate last fall, spoke to more than 100 people over a largely audience-driven hour, where questions ranged from conditions in detention facilities and the climate crisis to gridlock in Congress, for which Tester placed blame squarely on Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
"It's not what we're about as a country," Tester said of children who are separated from their parents after entering the country along the southern border.
Tester's comments come following a visit this week from other lawmakers to a detention center in Clint, Texas, where they found a woman who said she was told to drink from a toilet in the absence of clean running water.
That trip came on the heels of a report in June from lawyers who visited the facility and detailed conditions where children were not allowed to bathe and did not have access to toothbrushes or soap.
On June 26, Tester voted for a $4.6 billion bill to send humanitarian aid to the border. The legislation, which passed the GOP-held Senate 55-37, sharply divided House Democrats.
"In the end we see kids in tough conditions," Tester said. " … that's justification for throwing (some money at the problem.)"
Colleen Murphy, a licensed clinical social worker in Helena who works at Boulder Elementary, said she was frustrated with Tester's answers on immigration. She called them unclear and said they didn't address her concerns of what to do with children who are in custody now.
"He said he would send more money, and that's OK, but I feel helpless. The women I know are losing their minds over this. We want to know when this will stop," Murphy said.
Tester denounced removing children from their parents. "From a standpoint of separation, if it isn't against the law, it is certainly morally wrong."
He also was skeptical of the administration's claims they are moving children out of detention facilities as quickly as possible.
"I'm not sure I believe them," Tester said.
But while Murphy, who said she deals with children in trauma in her job, pressed more for immediate action at border facilities, Tester spoke about what he wants to happen long before people try to enter the country.
"I think it starts with aid," Tester said.
People are seeking entry into the U.S. in part because they're fleeing violence in their home countries, but also because they are starving, Tester told the crowd. He said he wants to see money and food aid to places like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
"Making the trek across Mexico to get to our borders, it's is not something I think they want to do," Tester said. " … There's a number of reasons for it. I cannot tell you it will change tomorrow, but we can take steps in the right direction."
After the town hall ended, Tester said it's important to hear from voters who don't necessary see eye to eye with him.
"It's kind of the way democracy works. I shouldn't agree with everybody all the time. It's OK when people make me justify why I believe the way I believe. It also makes me think about my position," Tester said.
Out of Montana's three-person delegation, Tester is the only one to hold regular in-person town halls that are announced in advance and open to the public. U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, both Republicans, hold telephone town halls.
Tester also fielded several questions about climate change, and he responded that lawmakers are too hung up on drafting the ideal bill.
"One of the problems that folks have in Washington, D.C., is they want everything to be perfect. They want the bill on climate change to be perfect and consequently we have done nothing on climate change, absolute zero," he said. " … What you should be doing is supporting the next step."
The root of most of the gridlock in Congress, Tester said, can be tracked to one person — McConnell.
"I think the problem is Mitch McConnell. I just think that he is really not doing much on a lot of important issues. I don't want to point him out, but he is the one," Tester said.
The landscape would change with a Democrat in the White House, but Tester doesn't think it would be a cure-all.
Asked after the town hall if he'd rather see Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat who is one of two dozen seeking the party's nomination for president in 2020, instead run against Tester's colleague, Montana's Republican Sen. Steve Daines, in 2020 and try to flip back the Senate, Tester said he thinks Bullock would do well in either office.
"I think Steve Bullock would make a good senator, I think Steve Bullock would make a good president," said Tester, who has endorsed Bullock's presidential bid.