Immigration Sanctuary Law Dispute Exhibits Oregon’s Rural-Urban Divide

by Clare Collins

FOREST GROVE, OREGON — While the Trump administration works to restrict immigration to the U.S. on a national level, many local movements often in traditionally liberal states have propelled forward simultaneously. Oregon, for example, has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984, enacted a progressive sanctuary law in 1987, and has generally leaned left on other issues. However, this year, voters will have the option of revoking the sanctuary status of the state after pressure from interest groups.. The group Oregonians for Immigration Reform (OFIR) is working at the state level to dismantle sanctuary status for undocumented immigrants through ballot measure 105.

OFIR helped place measure 105 on the ballot by collecting signatures from more than 88,184 individuals, the amount required for a measure to appear on the ballot. Despite some controversy, when signature gatherers were accused of lying to voters when collecting signatures, the measure made it to the ballot and will be up for a decision from voters in November.

The mission of OFIR, the group responsible for measure 105, is to fight “the utter disregard for existing United States immigration laws, illegal trafficking of people and drugs across the US border.” They use many appeals to Oregon voters on their website—including the environmental appeal that they are advocating for an “environmentally sustainable level of immigration.” OFIR stresses that they support legal immigration, but think that “mass immigration” has huge “environmental, economic, and societal consequences.” For this reason, they have taken action against multiple laws in Oregon, including the sanctuary law. OFIR president, Cynthia Kendoll told the Willamette Weekly in 2014, “we are told all the time that people come here and want to become Americans. I don’t think they’re interested in becoming U.S. citizens. It’s just an organized assault on our culture.”

However, opponents of the groups, including many immigrant rights activists, see OFIR quite differently. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has called the group “Oregon’s Anti-Immigrant Hate Group,” based on what they view as the group’s racist statements about immigrants and connections to many extremist anti-immigrant figures. SPLC points out, for instance, that the group is officially registered as a 501(c)(4), an organization which according to the IRS “must not be organized for profit and must be operated exclusively to promote social welfare.” OFIR has accepted donations from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a group founded by the white nationalist John Tanton, who is known for supporting the eugenics movement. The group has also accepted donations from Paul Nachman, who has contributed to a blog frequented by white nationalists in which he questions the existence of “moderate Muslims.”

Organizations like OFIR worry many immigrant rights activists, who see the ballot measures as attempts to take away the rights and dignities of undocumented immigrants. Ramon Ramirez, who works for Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, or PCUN, a large immigrant rights group in Oregon, told the Southern Poverty Law Center that passage of ballot measure 105 would “take us back to a time when racial profiling was rampant in Oregon. When federal immigration agents would pressure local law enforcement into breaking down doors and dragging parents and their kids out of their homes.”

Other immigration activists have echoed Ramirez’s sentiments. I attended an informational event where immigrant rights activists spoke about their work to protect immigrant communities. One such activist, Devon Downeysmith, the founder of a marketing company leading  communications and public relations for the no on 105 campaign, spoke about the significance of sanctuary states for immigrant communities.

Downeysmith said that making a location a sanctuary state or city simply means leaving deportation and other immigration related policing to the federal government, and not to local authorities. In practice, this means that the local police force must agree not to check the credentials of those they suspect are undocumented unless the individual is arrested for crimes other than entering the U.S. without documents. According to Downeysmith, without this type of sanctuary law, local police would be free to racially profile residents who they suspect of being undocumented. However, what would make passage of this ballot measure especially difficult, according to Downeysmith, is that it could make immigrant communities reluctant to utilize emergency services.

Racial profiling, although likely less common in Oregon compared to non-sanctuary states, still exists. For example, in 2017 ICE agents mistook a longtime employee of Washington county for an undocumented immigrant and attempted to arrest him. In response to this, and many other examples of racial profiling, the ACLU of Oregon sued the federal government, seeking information about policies used by the government, such as, “which people to target, when agents wear plainclothes and the circumstances under which agents can refuse to identify themselves or refuse to answer questions from the people they’re detaining.” Yet many worry that actions such as this one taken by the ACLU against profiling will largely be undone if voters decide to change the law after this coming election.

The History and Context of Sanctuary Status in Oregon

Oregon became a sanctuary state in 1987 thanks to bipartisan support of the idea in the Oregon congress. Most legislators saw the law as a no-brainer since it encouraged a sense of trust within communities between law enforcement and immigrant communities. In addition, it was more affordable to focus solely on domestic crimes versus enforcing immigration using local officials.

The law passed the Oregon Senate 29 to 1 and the Oregon House 58 to 1, with overwhelming bipartisan support. Since then, Latinx community members have been able to call 911 in an emergency, or report a crime largely without fear that local authorities would check their documents. However, were measure 105 to pass, many in the Latinx community would be forced to face emergency situations on their own, or risk being deported when they call for help. Ramon Ramirez, civil rights activist in Oregon, says this is largely due to their memories of what things were like before the sanctuary law was passed in 1987. He said, “Before Oregon had this law, I saw immigration agents, aided by local police, busting down doors and grabbing people off the street, with no way of knowing their immigration status. My friends and neighbors, including U.S. citizens, were being harassed by local police demanding to see their papers. There was a lot of fear back then. But this sanctuary law made things a lot better.”

Measure 105 isn’t the first time OFIR has targeted immigrant groups in Oregon using a ballot measure. In 2014, OFIR collected enough signatures to put measure 88 on the ballot, a measure removing the ability for undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses. In the end, measure 88 passed by more than 400,000 votes, taking away legal driving privileges from undocumented residents of Oregon. OFIR feels that undocumented immigrants with driver’s licenses posed “dangers” to Oregon drivers because they “chose to drive their motor vehicles impaired and recklessly.”

Oregon, estimated to be around 87% white overall, has a Latinx population estimated around 13% of the population, centered in certain areas. For example, smaller towns that still encompass the Portland area, such as Cornelius, are estimated to be about 50% Latinx, while Portland, the largest city, is estimated to be only about 10% Latinx. Of course, these statistics likely leave out undocumented residents and those who dodged the census, however they may still display overall population trends. Much of the movement against measure 105 is centered in these smaller, more rural towns surrounding Portland, where many in the Latinx community are farmers.

Oregon’s demographics beg additional questions. Given the findings of researchers from the North American Integration & Development Center, it is becoming clearer that opposition to immigration often comes from communities that are least affected. In the researchers’ words, there is a “negative correlation between the number of Trump supporters and the population size of Mexican immigrants” in any given community. Put another way, those who stand behind Trump’s claim that sanctuary cities are “ridiculous, crime infested” places tend to have less contact with these sanctuary cities Trump speaks of.

This finding may be reflected in the upcoming state elections in Oregon. Although Oregon is traditionally a liberal state, close to half of the state population is located in rural, mostly white areas in which many ascribe to Trump’s ideas on immigration. Additionally, during midterm elections, Republicans generally benefit from a higher turnout rate, making it possible that the trend about which these researchers write may change Oregon immigration law for some time. Although national movements may display what the outcomes of the past elections reaped, local elections in Oregon and other traditionally liberal places may have important implications in the upcoming presidential elections.

Likewise many of the anti-immigrant groups, such as OFIR are also based in more rural areas. OFIR is located in the rural town of McMinnville while much of their base for the ballot measure is centered in the eastern and southern regions of Oregon where the population is more white and rural. In the 2014 election, for example, when measure 88 was up for a vote, most support came from rural counties of Oregon, pictured in the map below. One such resident, Dave Fleck from Florence, Oregon, a small coastal town that is about 94% white, wrote about his support of the decision in an opinion piece. He said that the sharing of data on immigration status between federal and local law enforcement is “simply law enforcement cooperation, just as the Secret Service would be notified in the case of a counterfeiting incident.”

However, Lewis and Clark College Law Professor Juliet Stumpf had a different take on this type of law enforcement from that of Fleck. She said that according to official US policy “being in the country without authorization is not a crime” but an “administrative violation of immigration laws,” and should therefore not be enforced by local officers.

The decision to remove driver’s licenses from undocumented immigrants on measure 88, according to Christina Delgado, Leadership and Immigrant Solidarity Project Coordinator for the nonprofit Adelante Mujeres, struck a major blow to immigrant communities in Oregon. As I learned at a community event, Delgado is part of a coalition dedicated to improving conditions for Latinx immigrants in Oregon.

The coalition Delgado is part of collected information from immigrants in the region west of Portland, where many Latinx communities live, about what would make them feel more secure in Oregon. The number one concern expressed by individuals was the freedom to drive with a legal driving card or license. In many ways, Delgado said, such fears point to the serious threat that OFIR poses to immigrant communities in Oregon. By going after driver’s licenses, and now sanctuary statuses, OFIR is attacking the dignity and autonomy of immigrant groups in Oregon.

Sanctuary Status Impact on Refugees

Many of those labeled undocumented immigrants are actually refugees seeking asylum in the United States. Rubi Vergara-Grindell, a student activist who has worked with Central American refugees both on the southern Mexican border with Guatemala, the U.S. border, and in prisons in Texas saw the experiences of these refugees in the prison system firsthand. Vergara-Grindell listened to the stories of refugees from Central America and helped prepare them for their Credible Fear Screenings: the process U.S. authorities undertake to assess whether individuals coming into the country to flee unsafe conditions had a “credible fear of persecution or torture.”

As part of the process, individuals share their story and must explain to an asylum officer why they are unsafe returning to their country. They must tell their story in a specific way that helps them fit the standards for US asylum law. For instance, many come to the U.S. fleeing drug violence and domestic violence, yet under the Trump administration, drug violence and domestic violence cannot generally be used as reasons for seeking asylum in the U.S. For this reason, they must be trained to share their story strategically in a way that emphasizes reasons for asylum other than drug violence or domestic violence.

Vergara-Grindell says that many of these individuals have horrific stories of rape, mistreatment and violence and have come to the U.S. to flee these conditions. Yet when they arrive in the U.S. as refugees, their reasons for seeking asylum are not taken seriously. Despite their lived trauma, many refer to them as undocumented or “illegal” immigrants, when in many ways they are a separate group. Getting rid of sanctuary status will subject refugees from Central America to even more trauma, as they will be racially profiled and targeted by police.

In many ways, sanctuary status should actually make the job of law enforcement officers easier: they could divert resources to focus on local crimes rather than enforcing immigration law. Despite this, 16 Oregon Sheriffs from mostly rural counties in Oregon have signed a letter asking voters to repeal the sanctuary law. The sheriffs imply that sanctuary laws make it more difficult to police people on crimes other than not having documents. However, Oregon law does not prevent state police from enforcing the law for other crimes, and does not prohibit them from arresting immigrants for other violations.

Many have criticized the letter for overlooking key aspects of the law. For instance, Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel says that “throwing out this law will divert our local law enforcement officers away from solving local crimes, making rural communities less safe.” Retired Hillsboro Police Chief, Ron Louie said “Our Oregon law provides clear guidance to local law enforcement officers on how to handle complicated immigration issues. It creates a bright line that says local police should be focused on solving local problems.” However, others such as Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson echo President Trump’s belief that federal and local law enforcement should be in agreement, and share information with each other.

Although those opposed to sanctuary cities and states say that abolishing them promotes the law and creates a more peaceful community, it could be said that both measure 88 and measure 105 discourage people from following the law or promoting more safe communities. Measure 88 took away legal driving privileges from undocumented immigrants. Because the procedure of receiving a license (obtaining a permit and passing a license test), are intended to improve public safety, taking away the possibility of receiving a license from undocumented immigrants could actually make the roads more dangerous since individuals may drive alone without having practiced the required number of hours or without having studied the state laws.

Measure 105, if passed, will likely erode any sense of trust existing between immigrant communities and local law enforcement, potentially making it less likely that individuals within these communities will report crimes. Contrary to President Trump’s claims that dismantling sanctuary cities promotes safety, studies of sanctuary cities have found no significant differences between crime rates in sanctuary and non sanctuary cities.

While President Trump wages a war against sanctuary status at the federal level, many local jurisdictions have caught on and are using his same rhetoric to dismantle immigration law. Oregon is not the only state to attempt this. A group in California is also attempting to take away sanctuary status in 2020. The upcoming Oregon decision may point to whether Trump’s rhetoric has the ability spread to the local level, even in traditionally liberal places such as California and Oregon, or whether it will be rejected in the next presidential election.

Clare Collins is a senior at St. Olaf College studying social work and political science.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The cover photo above is of Jim Ludwick, the founder of OFIR. It was taken by Kate Wilson of InvestigateWest, a nonprofit journalism studio.

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