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Connecticut’s senators choose their guests for State of the Union

February 2, 2019 GMT

The choices by Connecticut’s Congress members for guests to the State of the Union highlight different messages, from immigration to the government shutdown, that they want to send to the president next week.

President Donald Trump will deliver his second State of the Union address on Tuesday at 9 p.m.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., is bringing the head of Noank Community Support Services, a nonprofit that has provided shelter and services to migrant children separated from their families at the border. The organization, which relies on federal grant money, was at risk of closing its homeless shelter for 18- to 24-year-olds, the only such shelter in southeastern Connecticut, due to the recent government shutdown.

“I’m proud to join Senator Murphy at the State of the Union to shed a light on what we’re doing in Connecticut to help our most vulnerable residents,” Executive Director Regina Moller said in a statement.

Moller’s attendance will illuminate “how President Trump’s border policies are traumatizing a generation of children and how the recent government shutdown affected Connecticut,” Murphy said in a statement.

The nonprofit is working to get back on track now that the government is reopen. It submitted the final form needed to access a $340,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to launch the homeless shelter, known as the Main Street House, on the same day the government shut down. So the organization has been paying five employees and funding food, toiletries and other expenses on its own since Nov. 1. HUD officials have promised to expedite the funding.

“The young men and women have experienced much trauma already in their lives, and depend on the stable provision of services,” Moller said.

Even before a debate over border wall funding sparked the 35-day partial government shutdown, the longest in history, the organization was being hindered by the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

A memorandum of understanding signed in May 2018 between the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection allows the three agencies to share background information about potential sponsors for the migrant children, including fingerprints.

That has led to fewer sponsors willing to step forward out of fear, prolonged reunifications and more children being placed in the care of more distant and less known relatives, increasing trauma, Moller said.

“Since walls will never stop desperation, we would like to see more efforts at getting to the root cause of the migration,” she said.

The guest of U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is Army veteran Gerry Wright of Andover, who’s brought attention to Vietnam vets who were exposed to toxic substances during their military service.

While serving in the Army during the Vietnam War, Wright was exposed to the dioxin-tainted herbicide Agent Orange, and now has permanent medical conditions. After riding 10,000 miles on his motorcycle to raise awareness about Agent Orange exposure, Wright reached out to Blumenthal’s office last year to advocate for legislation.

Blumenthal introduced the Agent Orange Exposure Fairness Act that would remove barriers for vets seeking disability compensation due to Agent Orange exposure. U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney introduced the same bill in the House. The measures failed to pass in the last Congress, but Blumenthal intends to reintroduce the proposal next week.

Wright also has worked closely with Blumenthal to enable so-called Blue Water Navy vets, those who served on ships in the territorial seas of Vietnam, eligible for Agent Orange benefits. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit recently ruled that they are eligible.

Blue Water Navy vets have argued that Agent Orange washed into rivers and out to sea and that their ships sucked in the water and used it for showering, cooking and cleaning.

Initially, they were recognized and compensated by the Department of Veterans Affairs under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, which presumed certain diseases resulted from exposure to dioxins and other herbicide agents during military service in Vietnam. In 2002, the VA reinterpreted the legislation to apply only to veterans who served in the inland rivers or set foot in Vietnam, stripping Blue Water Navy vets of their coverage.

j.bergman@theday.com