Illegal immigration, the high cost of prescription drugs and gun violence dominated the conversation when U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) hosted a town hall meeting in Milford last week.
Dressed in navy blue slacks, a blue shirt with sleeves rolled back and dark red tie, Coons, a Delaware native, greeted those who gathered at the Carlisle Fire Company, filling it to more than half its capacity, saying, “I try to figure out a way, every day, to do a good job for you.”
“The best thing about a Democracy is, as I said to my wife this morning, ‘Tonight I get to go and meet the boss.’ I am excited to listen to you,” he said, adding that town hall meetings are often learning experiences for him.
“Our job is to serve you. Let’s have some fun. Let’s try to be respectful. I am a Democrat, and that means I have some core values and principles that align more with my party than the other party, but you would be surprised how many of us are working together day by day to find solutions,” he said.
One woman said she was concerned about “disrespect and not caring about other people.”
“I think gun violence is a big part of it, but I think violence in general is a big issue. I don’t think we can address gun violence without addressing how people get along, so anger and popping off and hitting somebody and saying ugly things about each other is not the way to go,” she said.
“There is a lot of talk about mass shootings, but what you’re pointing to is this reflects a deeper challenge in that we are having trouble respecting each other,” the senator said.
“I try to conduct myself in a way that teaches about respect. For example, I try not to talk about ‘the president’ but ‘our president.’ It is often easier and cheaper … to use nicknames and slander and to go after each other, but I don’t see how that builds things up. We should not ignore the fact that, as a country, we are having a real hard time listening to each other,” Coons said.
Along that line, he pointed out, to applause, that a man wearing a Make America Great Again cap was sitting next to a woman in a T-shirt printed with the slogan “Nevertheless, She Persisted.”
Concerning inflated prescription medication prices, Coons said he is co-sponsoring three bills, including one that would cap out-of-pocket expenses. He receives more calls from worried constituents about prescription drug prices than anything else, he said, and both parties are looking into addressing the problem.
“We’re doing it because we’re hearing from you. Consumers are mad,” Coons said.
“The president knows this is a major issue. The few times I met with him, this came up,” he said, adding that U.S. Secretary of Health & Human Services Alex Azar, a Salisbury, Md., native, is “working on a plan so that the U.S. won’t pay more than the average costs that select other countries pay,” Coons said.
A Milford physician asked what is being done to lower the cost of insulin.
“If somebody doesn’t get insulin, somebody can die. I’m just really concerned. I get these calls every single day. I get calls from insurance companies saying, ‘You can’t write this, you can’t write that. We don’t cover that.’ It’s really frustrating,” she said.
“What’s being done to bring more doctors here?” she asked, saying there is a shortage in the state, and no medical school.
Coons said Delaware has a relationship with the Sidney Kimmel Medical College, formerly Jefferson Medical College, in Philadelphia.
“For a long time, the University of Delaware and Jefferson Medical School has had a number of spots reserved every year (for Delaware students) to go to Jefferson,” he said, adding that the last president of the University of Delaware had investigated building a medical school.
A member of the Felton fire department asked how Coons supports first-responders.
The senator said every year he fights for money to help pay for equipment and other needs. There are two federal grant programs that help fund the purchase of apparatus and personal protection gear and maintain staffing levels, he said.
Coons noted that he had taken his staff to fire school for a day.
“If you’ve never put on bunker gear and gone into a building that’s on fire, I don’t think you can understand how unnatural it is to be there. … Everything in your brain is saying, ‘Get out,’’’ he said.
He is now helping to raise money for a national monument to honor paramedics.
“More than anything, it’s just attentiveness, I think — making sure we are there for you,” Coons said.
Addressing a question about the U.S. border and illegal immigration, Coons said he disagrees with abolishing Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) and supports a secure border. It’s necessary to have a law-enforcement entity to deport those in the country illegally, he said, adding that violent criminals should be the first to be deported.
Drawing applause and shouts of agreement from the audience, he said he doesn’t agree with separating children from their parents. He said 40 percent of those in the United States illegally didn’t come across the border, but flew into the country and stayed longer than their visas permitted.
Any American who dines in a restaurant or stays in a hotel is benefitting from someone who is in the country illegally and working, Coons said.
“There are millions who go to work and pay taxes, but they are not here legally. We should come up with a process and a pathway. … The truth is we have a badly broken immigration system that is not getting better while we are pointing fingers at each other,” he said.
One man said he wants “all people taken care of, but I want Americans taken care of first.”
“There are babies in the streets starving,” he said.
Coons said neither the left end of the Democratic party nor the right end of the Republican party has all the answers, because solutions lay in the middle.
A former Newark, Del., councilman suggested creating a modern-day Ellis Island, the immigration inspection station established in Upper New York Bay in 1892.
“That’s the answer. They need to be processed within 48 hours. They are going to be fingerprinted. They don’t have all the rights we have. … The families aren’t going to be split apart. You’re either in or you’re out. It’s humane,” he said.
A man who identified himself as Paul Johnson of New Castle County accused Coons of condoning illegals living and working in the country without proper identification and completed paperwork.
“That is what you kept saying, so if they are here working in the chicken industry and they do not have work papers or they do not have a green card, they need to be removed because they are committing crimes,” he said.
Acknowledging he might have misspoken, Coons said what he meant was that there are 12 million people in the country who are not legal, but who provide many services Americans rely on.
“I was not advocating this. I was not saying this is a great thing. … I was simply making an observation that there is no credible scenario where we will deport 12 million people,” he said, reiterating that they pay taxes.
“How? They don’t have Social Security numbers,” one woman called out. Coons told her taxes are deducted from their paychecks.
“As our senator, what are you doing to stop it?” someone asked.
Coons said he co-sponsored a bill that would require all employers to certify legal status of every employee, although the employers asked the government to give them tools needed to accomplish that “and not just come in and tear through their companies,” Coons said.
“There are laws on the books. If we aren’t going to enforce them, then take them off,” one man in the audience said.
Coons said U.S. officials “cannot deport 12 million people at one time and do everything else we are asked to do.”
“Then don’t let them in,” another woman yelled out.
“We are not letting them in” as though a big gate is being purposefully opened, Coons said.
A teacher asked what’s being done on the federal level to support educators teaching students who don’t speak English as a first language, and how schools are being made safer.
Coons asked for applause for teachers, saying, “God bless them.”
“Some folks are proposing arming teachers, and other people are proposing making schools gun-free zones. It hurts my heart to know children are growing up today with active-shooter drills,” he said, remembering the day his daughter, who is now starting college, told him about drills at her school.
“That really gave me pause. We ask teachers to deal with every problem in our society,” he said.
Concerning English language learners, Coons said that if a parent illegally brings a child over the border, “I don’t think we should punish the child.”
A woman asked how other countries feel about America.
“What is the confidence level of the United States now, because these people in other countries, these are people we might need if, God forbid, we have to go back into war again? We can’t alienate all of them,” she said.
“We are at war right now,” Coons said.
Every time the United States has gone to war, he said, Canada, New Zealand and other ally countries have been supportive.
Coons said he respects “the way President Trump is standing up to China, but I disagree with his strategy of first attacking our closest allies with tariffs before going after China.”
“Our allies in NATO and our allies in the Asian Pacific are wondering if we are really with them or not. China has no allies. They have nervous neighbors, clients and countries, but not countries that will go to war with them and fight with them the way Denmark has with us. I worry about the ways in which [Trump] is pounding and berating South Korea and Japan. It has strained those relationships. It really has. We are in an unusually dangerous period in world history. … We’ve got lots of stuff going on in the world.
“I hope whatever happens after this next election, we find a way to get back to a place where we have strong allies globally. We need strong alliances, and I think we need to invest in them,” Coons said to applause.
By Susan Canfora