Welch tours Manchester sites after Mexico border trip

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Note: This story was amended on June 19, 2018, at 12:15 p.m.

MANCHESTER — On the heels of a rapid trip to the Mexico border to inspect conditions for children being held as illegal immigrants, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch was back in Vermont on Monday afternoon, meeting with officials and touring redevelopment sites in the downtown area. It was a rapid change of scene.

His one-day trip to Texas with other Democratic lawmakers began early Sunday in Boston, Welch said. There, he witnessed at several sites the effects of "the incredibly aggressive immigration policy by Donald Trump."

Under the new policy of detaining those entering the United States at the border, children have been separated from their parents. The children are not held in the same detention centers or jails but are being detained at facilities overseen by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Welch said he believes Americans generally have rejected the current policies that separate children from parents, saying, "I think public opinion is united: Don't separate families. And I think the more the stories come out that this is actually being done by our government, the more outrage there is."

In Manchester, Welch heard much more positive news about development efforts boosting the economy of the downtown.

He met during the late afternoon at Town Hall with Town Manager John O'Keefe, state Rep. Brian Keefe, R-Manchester, Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, Select Board Vice Chairman Wayne Bell, town economic development officer Pauline Moore and others.

The group then toured Thompson Memorial Park, where improvements to athletic fields and other facilities and other amenities have enhanced the quality of life in Manchester, possibly making it more likely visitors would want to settle there, O'Keefe said.

Braving a raging thunderstorm with driving rain and high winds, most of the officials then visited Fortuna's Italian shop the redevelopment of the former Factory Point Bank building on Main Street, which now contains Mystic Cafe, Union Underground and condominiums following extensive renovation, O'Keefe said.

The manager said local officials wanted to show Welch how the federal highway funding that he has supported "is put to work in the downtown."

O'Keefe cited funding for street improvements along Main Street and nearby over the past several years, including a new roundabout at the intersection of Routes 11 and 30, have helped to stimulate local business activity.

Historic restoration tax credits also were a key in the redevelopment of the former bank building, he said.

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Prior to the downtown tour Monday afternoon, Welch also commented on Trump’s assertion that the Democrats are mostly at fault for a lack of progress on immigration reform.

He was asked whether he believes, as some in the administration have argued, that the policy could act as a deterrent to those trying to enter the country illegally.

“Here’s what I don’t buy,” Welch said. “I don’t buy using children as hostages. I find that unacceptable. These are innocent kids. You’re ripping them away from their mother. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to know what that does to a child."

Referring to deterrent effects, Welch also asked rhetorically what it would take for a parent to travel long distances with children, often to escape repressive conditions at home in Central or South America, to take a desperate gamble at the U.S. border “to make a better life.”

He said of Trump: “He’s got the authority to do this, but he shouldn’t. One of the most important qualities in a powerful leader is restraint. And the president seems to lack that.”

Despite the policy, Welch offered praise for the federal security and other workers at the Texas-Mexico border.

“You know, I was appalled by what I saw at the border, but I was inspired by a lot of the government workers I saw. At the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) facility that we were at, I saw a lot of people there acted with thought and sensitivity.”

Referring to citizen checks at the Canada-Vermont border and other enforcement actions around the U.S., Welch said, “What I see is an incredibly aggressive immigration policy by Donald Trump and (Attorney General) Jeff Sessions.”

He added: “This is the kind of thing that people don’t believe is happening, because they don’t believe our country in a million years could every do this."

Welch said he and other Democrats are “absolutely” reaching out to Republicans who he believes oppose the Trump immigration policies. 

There is a definite need for security at the southern border, Welch said, referring to the principal Republican concerns. He said drug smuggling is only one dangerous issue border patrol personnel deal with, but his impression was that many ICE officials didn’t support the new detention policy.

“You know, a lot of those folks, they think families should be together," he said. "It’s not like the president called them up and said, ‘hey, what do you think of this idea?’”

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com. @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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