Democratic Senator Jon Tester hosted a town hall in Bozeman Tuesday where he answered questions about immigration, healthcare and climate change — among other hot topic issues.
Around 180 people in plaid shirts, fleece jackets and at least one red Make America Great Again hat crammed into the historic Baxter Hotel conference room. Some brought questions scribbled on index cards. Others simply came to hear from the senator who was re-elected last fall.
Senator Tester's first town hall of the year came on the heels of his recent visit to the southern border. Several attendees asked questions related to immigration.
A man in the front row brought up E-verify, an online system that allows employers to check the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S. Currently, it’s a voluntary program.
“Would you support some kind of a bill where they phase in e-verify over a period of time? We don’t want to put people out of business, but we’ve got to get back to a legal workforce. And that’s what I think is one issue that needs to be dealt with, and I haven’t heard anyone talk about it recently," said a commentator.
"You will right now,” said Tester. He said he has supported e-verify in the past and will support it again. He added that many people are in the U.S. illegally because their visas have run out.
“We’ve got to have better work done on watching the visa oversight so that when those visas run out, they go back home.” As for asylum seekers, Tester said, "We need to have more of [judges], not less of them, and they need to be closer to the border. Why? So they can be adjudicated much quicker. It would be much more humane than to do it the way it does now, which takes a year-and-a-half to two years, which is ridiculous.”
Tester said the government needs to look at the root causes for immigration as well. He said he supports targeted aid to address hunger in places like Guatemala and El Salvador.
“We raise food here. We actually raise a lot of really good food in Montana," said Tester. "Why don’t we do some direct aid for food to get to these folks to help them?"
People pitched questions for about 50 minutes.
One attendee asked, “Would you give us an update on what’s happening with prescription drugs? What can happen?"
"What can happen is we can make it so when prescription drug companies increase the price of a prescription drug or even put a new prescription drug on the market, they have to tell you why they’re charging the price they charge,” responded Tester.
Tester said this would create more transparency. He added he has a bill that would require pharmaceutical companies to turn their drugs over to generic manufacturers as soon as the patent runs out.
Several people in the crowd asked about climate change. A woman from Reese Creek said she supports the Green New Deal, a congressional resolution backed mostly by Democrats that sets out a plan for tackling climate change and income inequality.
“The Green New Deal is the only resolution out there that addresses climate change adequately enough in the timeline that scientists have given us, and I’m wondering if you will support the Green New Deal and if not, what is your plan to give my generation its future which is being rapidly stolen from us," she asked.
"I support the fact that we need to have a debate on climate change," said Tester. "There are other things in the Green New Deal I just can’t support. In other words, a job. Period. You get a job. No matter what you do, no matter how much alcohol you drink, no matter how bad you’ve done to your community, you get a job? That just doesn’t work for me.”
Tester said it’s fiscally irresponsible to do nothing about climate change.
As for the best way to address it, he said, “Well, I think it all goes to the research, goes to the research on new ways for energy and it goes for ways we can burn coal cleaner, as clean as we possibly can. It goes to research on battery technology so we can store wind energy and use it during peak times.”
He said without that research moving forward, there will be more impacts from climate change. Another attendee brought up the high rates of suicides in Montana, especially with veterans.
“I’d appreciate any comments, updates you have on recent suicides. We’ve seen three veterans commit suicides on VA property within the last month," the attendee asked.
"Yeah, I appreciate the question," said Tester. "Suicide is a huge issue within VA. It’s a huge issue in our society quite frankly.”
Tester said there needs to be more psychiatric support in Montana.
“And we need the VA to get more aggressive in hiring," he added. "We’ve got too many open slots within VA Montana, and they need to get aggressive and hire them up, whether it’s general practitioners, or whether it’s psychiatrists, psychologists, family practitioners, whoever it might be.”
People at the town hall also asked about efforts to reduce violence against women and wilderness protection. Tester discussed his work to secure funding for the bipartisan reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which supports conservation projects and city parks across the country.
Tester last held a town hall in January 2018.