Midterms Give Voters Their First Say on Immigration in Trump Era

Oregon has the oldest sanctuary state law in the country. Until recently, it attracted little controversy. In November, voters will decide whether to repeal it.
by | September 18, 2018
Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese, with members of Oregonians United Against Profiling, during a press conference to speak against Measure 105. (AP/Anna Spoerre)

For a summary of November's most important ballot measures, click here.

Four years ago, undocumented immigrants in Oregon suffered a crushing defeat. Voters overwhelmingly rejected a statewide ballot measure that would have allowed them to legally drive. It was an enormous victory for the anti-immigrant Oregonians for Immigration Reform.

Now Oregonians for Immigration Reform is leading a new fight at the ballot box -- this time to repeal Oregon’s so-called sanctuary state law.

If passed by the state's voters in November, Measure 105 would overturn Oregon’s decades-old prohibition on using state or local law enforcement resources for “detecting or apprehending” people guilty only of federal immigration violations. It would remove this protection for the undocumented at a time when President Donald Trump has made opposition to immigration central to his agenda. The vote will be the nation's first major referendum on immigration policy since Trump's election in 2016.

Oregonians for Immigration Reform says repeal would “free Oregon law enforcement to better protect Oregonians from criminal aliens.” But opponents counter that it would increase racial profiling, breed fear among immigrants that prevents them from reporting crimes and effectively make the state an extension of Trump’s “deportation force.”

Anti-immigration advocates cite crime as a top reason for being against sanctuary laws, but there is substantial evidence that undocumented immigrants are no more criminal -- and indeed may be less criminal -- than native-born Americans.

Oregon’s sanctuary law is the nation’s oldest of its kind. It passed with bipartisan support in 1987 as a response to frequent racial profiling by the police. In one high-profile instance a decade earlier, a Polk County Sheriff's deputy detained an American citizen of Mexican descent named Delmiro Trevino without a warrant, interrogating him about his citizenship status in front of fellow patrons at a restaurant in Independence, where he was a longtime resident.

The sanctuary law has been largely uncontroversial until recently. Trump's election and subsequent policies have ignited anti-immigration voters and advocates, fueling their cause. Supporters of Measure 105 believe its passage would vindicate the president's immigration approach.

“If a blue state like Oregon votes for a policy Donald Trump would like,” says Oregonians for Immigration Reform spokesman Jim Ludwick, “it shows one of the reasons he won.”

Whichever side prevails, this vote could have national implications.

“We need to win this campaign -- and win it big -- so we don't see similar measures like it popping up [across] the country,” says Peter Zuckerman, a spokesman for the “No on 105” campaign from Oregonians Against Profiling. “By voting no, we can show that Oregon wants no part in the immigration policies of [U.S. Attorney General] Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump.”

A poll of likely Oregon voters this month from the Hoffman Research Group of Portland found that just 31 percent support repealing the sanctuary law, while 50 percent oppose repeal.

The law enforcement community, which is most affected by this law aside from immigrants, is divided on the issue. Nearly half of Oregon’s sheriffs support repealing the sanctuary law, as the Associated Press reported last month. But the “No on 105” campaign boasts support from more than a dozen current and former sheriffs, prosecutors, and police chiefs and officers.

“Trust is the foundation of good policing,” Andrea Williams, another spokesperson for “No on 105” and the executive director of the immigrant rights group Causa, told a local TV station last month. “When local law enforcement plays the role of federal immigration, immigrants become too scared to come forward to ask for help from the police when they’ve been victimized, or to share critical information to help solve cases when they’ve witnessed a crime themselves.”

Williams also argued that repealing the sanctuary law could harm people who everyone agrees have the right to be in Oregon.

“It’s about whether or not we’re going to be a state where people who are brown, like me, could be stopped by police for no other reason than we’re thought to be an undocumented immigrant," she said.

Sheriffs who back repealing the sanctuary law argue it "undermines respect for law in significant ways." In a recent public letter, they wrote that the law "tells illegal immigrants that Oregon considers immigration law violations so inconsequential as to be unworthy of police and sheriffs’ attention. In doing so, it legitimizes those violations and encourages more.”

For her part, Gov. Kate Brown, the Democratic incumbent, defends the law. She argued at a press conference in July that the state’s efforts to prohibit racial profiling “have been effective” and that nothing about its sanctuary status prevents law enforcement from policing criminal behavior.

Knute Buehler, the Republican nominee for governor this year, disagrees and supports repealing the law.

“We need to have coordination and collaboration between local law enforcement and federal law enforcement,” he told conservative talk radio host Lars Larson in July. “People who are here and committing crimes -- there needs to be that kind of coordination and communication.”

Several other states have similar laws. After California passed a sanctuary law last year, the Trump administration sued to block it. But in July, a federal court largely dismissed the lawsuit.

For a summary of November's most important ballot measures, click here.

Graham Vyse | Staff Writer