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Elizabeth Warren criticizes GOP on opioid crisis, immigration

US Senator Elizabeth Warren
US Senator Elizabeth Warren(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

Senator Elizabeth Warren sharply criticized the Trump administration and congressional Republicans for straying away from American values in their handling of the opioid crisis and family separations at the border during a Saturday town hall meeting in the South End.

“This isn’t about politics,” she said, standing on stage at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. “What it means to have values is you hold onto them, and you hold onto them whether people agree with them or not.”

The Cambridge Democrat opened the event by reminding the crowd of about 300 people that it was the one-year anniversary of the Republicans’ failure to repeal Obamacare in the US Senate. She encouraged the audience to remember the power of their collective voice.

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“It didn’t happen because we had the votes,” she said. “It didn’t happen because somehow magically there were three more Democrats than we had early on. It didn't happen because of that. It happened because of people who spoke out.”

Warren then spoke about the federal government’s approach to solving the opioid crisis, which she compared to the handling of the HIV/AIDS crisis during the 1980s. On average, she said, 115 people die from overdoses every day.

Warren said that when she told Republican lawmakers that legislation she introduced would provide $100 billion over a 10-year span to states and communities to combat the opioid crisis, their response was “we can’t afford it.”

“This is a crisis the Trump administration is saying costs us a half a trillion dollars a year and we can’t spend $10 billion a year to fight back?” Warren said she asked congressional Republicans. “You just gave away a trillion and half dollars to billionaires and giant corporations and in return there’s no money to help with this crisis?“

During the question-and-answer portion, Warren was asked about the possibility of Puerto Rico achieving statehood. She said that because of its status as a territory, Puerto Rico is unable to legally deal with its $73 billion debt, and she is working on two bills to help with that.

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The first, which she described as a Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico, would provide aid for infrastructure. The second bill, which she introduced this past week, would give Puerto Rico the option of declaring default and wiping out its debt.

“We can not let Puerto Rico fall off the radar screen,” she said.

Before Warren came on stage at the town hall, activist Vanessa Calderón-Rosado told the crowd that the senator’s support for Puerto Rico predated Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

“She has been a leader on the issues affecting Puerto Rico since long before last Sept. 20, and I am proud to stand here today with her,” said Calderón-Rosado, chief executive of the nonprofit community group Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, or Puerto Rican Tenants in Action.

When an audience member asked about the Abolish ICE movement, Warren gave an impassioned description from her visit to the border, where she met people from Central America who came to the United States to flee gangs and other violence.

“I was down at the border. I saw people in cages,” she said. “Cages and cages of men. Cages and cages of women by themselves. The one that really got me was the cages of little girls.”

She said ICE should be reorganized “top to bottom and side to side.”

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“Every part of the American government should live our values every single day — at least do its best,” Warren said. “I get that we fall short, but I believe now that we’re in a place with ICE that it is not doing that.”

Allen Black, 39, said he was excited to hear Warren speak in person since he had recently moved to Boston from Oklahoma to be near people with liberal ideals.

“She talked a lot about acting on our values, not so much fighting over little details,” he said. “It’s nice to see people take that to heart.“

SarahEmily Pina, 31, of Dorchester, said she was especially moved by Warren’s description of her experience at the border.

“She was able to give us a perspective of what that actually looked like on the ground and I was so glad that she took that opportunity to really describe that and how gut-wrenching it was,” Pina said.

Sophia Eppolito can be reached at sophia.eppolito@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaEppolito.