Immigration, guns and tariffs were flashpoints among the concerns voiced at a town hall meeting in Burns, Oregon, on Thursday, where people questioned Rep. Greg Walden, the Republican congressman who has represented them in the U.S. House for the last 20 years.
Questions from the crowd alternated between hyper-local issues — such as medical transport and a struggling recycling center — to the debates dividing the nation in recent years.
The first question came from Harney County resident Barbara Cannady, who asked Walden why and when “social service benefits to illegal aliens,” were reversed.
“I think it’s still the law,” Walden replied. “I know the administration just announced better definitions about people coming into the country, and ... if they have been on, or are going to be on public assistance because the idea is that’s not what immigration is all about."
The new criteria put forward by the Trump administration this month would deny green cards to people who use public assistance while navigating the legal immigration process. Walden did not clarify that the rules apply to legal residents when answering Cannady's question about "illegal aliens."
The rules are due to take effect Oct. 15 and will make it more difficult for documented, low-income people from other countries to remain in the U.S.
In response to a question about gun control, Walden said he had opposed a House bill expanding the federal background check system because he “didn’t think it was well-written.”
He reiterated that his concerns that the bill could turn people out riding and shooting on Eastern Oregon ranches into felons if they swapped guns.
H.R. 8, which passed the House, said someone can temporarily transfer their firearm if it is “reasonably necessary for the purposes of hunting, trapping, or fishing.”
During the debate over the legislation, Republicans repeatedly sought broader exemptions for farmers and ranchers. They also wanted to expand the exemption from background checks for family members to include a broader circle of those with familial ties, such as in-laws.
Walden told the Burns crowd the current background check system needed better enforcement, citing an audit of state transactions showing only one out of every more than 600 ended up in the nationwide database.
“I hope they don’t come wanting to take my guns away from me, and I hope they don’t tell me I’m a felon if I let somebody use one of my guns,” constituent Paul Hyland told Walden.
“Right,” the congressman replied.
Walden has walked a careful line on gun issues. He has said he's willing to tighten some gun laws. But he has also maintained an "A" grade from the National Rifle Association, which has taken a hard line against attempts to tighten restrictions on guns. The group strenuously lobbied against the background checks bill that passed the House.
Walden has largely stayed in line with President Trump’s policies, including tariffs that have damaged long-standing business relationships in Eastern Oregon.
Harney County resident Lynn McClintock told Walden “our economy is becoming weaker because of these [tariffs], farms are struggling and the immigration is being impacted, too, with visas to get them to come and work in these fields.”
Walden’s reply skipped over the immigration reference and focused on the tariffs.
“I have conveyed directly to the administration at every level — president on down — about the effect of tariffs and the importance of markets. Japan is our No. 1 market in this for wheat,” he said, adding: “China is a different matter from a couple of angles. China cheats.”
Walden continued: “I think it was time for somebody to stand up to China, and this president has certainly done that.”
A rare break with Trump came up at the Burns meeting. A recent high school graduate asked how he would help end the bullying of LGBTQ people like her.
"I think in America you should have freedom of choice, and you should have protection for your lifestyle,” Walden replied.
This year he was among only eight Republicans to vote for a House bill that would expand civil rights protections to prohibit discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation and gender identity in a wide variety of areas. Meanwhile, a White House statement described the Equality Act as being "filled with poison pills that threaten to undermine parental and conscience rights."
The Eastern Oregon town with fewer than 3,000 residents was Walden’s second-to-last stop on an 18-town tour of Oregon's 2nd Congressional District this summer.