In this 2017 photo, Cynthia Kendoll, left, talks with volunteers at the Oregon State Fair booth of Oregonians for Immigration Reform. The group is gathering signatures for a proposed ballot measure that seeks to overturn the state's 30-year-old sanctuary law.

In this 2017 photo, Cynthia Kendoll, left, talks with volunteers at the Oregon State Fair booth of Oregonians for Immigration Reform. The group is gathering signatures for a proposed ballot measure that seeks to overturn the state’s 30-year-old sanctuary law.

Jeff Mapes/OPB

UPDATE (Aug. 27, 4:10 p.m. PT)Nearly half of the sheriffs in Oregon have signed onto a letter asking voters to repeal the state’s 30-year-old sanctuary law this fall.

The letter released Monday says the state’s “statute undermines respect for law in significant ways.”

Sixteen sheriffs signed the letter and suggest that immigrants cause crimes that can’t be policed because of the state’s law. However, nothing in Oregon’s sanctuary law prohibits police officers or sheriffs deputies from enforcing the law, investigating crimes or arresting suspects.

The state’s sanctuary law prohibits the use of state and local resources to enforce federal immigration law if a person’s only infraction is being in the country illegally.

Numerous research studies show immigrants actually cause fewer or about the same number of crimes as people born in the United States.

“That is a finding that has held since the early 20th century,” said Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the Libertarian-leaning Cato Institute during an OPB interview in March.

In their letter, the sheriffs write that being able to work with “federal partners” like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would give them more policing options.

“(The sanctuary law) tells illegal immigrants that Oregon considers immigration-law violations so inconsequential as to be unworthy of police and sheriffs’ attention,” the letter states. “In doing so, it legitimizes those violations and encourages more.”

In November, voters will be asked in Ballot Measure 105 whether or not to repeal the state’s sanctuary law.

Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin, the chief author of the letter, told OPB the sanctuary law hamstrings law enforcement in Oregon.

“If I get an MS-13 or somebody that’s a bad guy, ISIS or whatever is here, then I’m screwed,” Bergin said, echoing a common refrain from President Trump and other advocates of tougher immigration laws in the United States.

Bergin said he was more likely to come across a “bad guy” at the local level, and therefore needed more authority to address undocumented immigrants.

“We’re not talking about migrant farm workers,” he said. “Now, if they’re an MS-13 guy that comes across, our hands are tied. We have a lot less authority to say you’re under arrest for A, B, or C and we’re going to hold you.”

When asked how the state’s sanctuary law prevents him and other law enforcement agencies in Oregon from enforcing criminal law, Bergin said he needs to be able to detain people on immigration charges in cases where “we know that we’ve got an illegal citizen and that’s all he’s done, and we don’t have enough to arrest him on say like a rape, or a murder, or something else that’s occurred.”

Trump’s U.S. Department of Justice argues sanctuary laws violate a federal law that requires information sharing between law enforcement agencies.

Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson said he signed onto the letter because he’d like to see local and federal law in agreement.

“I endorse a yes vote on Ballot Measure 105 to repeal a statute that I feel is in direct conflict with federal law and the federal rules of information sharing,” Nelson said. “I’m not going to change the way that I do business as a result of the failure or passage of this measure. I just think the rules are the rules.”

But law enforcement in Deschutes County is split on the measure, showing the fractious nature of the issue in Oregon. While Nelson supports repealing the sanctuary law, Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel opposes Measure 105.

“This law has worked well for 30 years, holding people who commit crimes accountable while also protecting civil rights,” Hummel said in a statement. “Throwing out this law will divert our local law enforcement officers away from solving local crimes, making rural communities less safe.”

Lewis and Clark Law Professor Juliet Stumpf researches immigration law, and she opposes efforts to repeal the state’s sanctuary law.

“Being in the country without authorization, so just unlawful presence, is not a crime,” she said. “It’s actually an administrative violation of the immigration laws, but it’s not a crime.”

Stumpf added that there’s nothing in state law that prevents district attorneys, sheriffs or police from prosecuting identify theft or other crimes.

Other Oregon officials blasted the letter from Bergin. Erin McKee, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Project, said the letter “not only ignores facts and statistics, but it also relies on tired, fear-mongering rhetoric that misleads the public.”

McKee said Monday’s letter perpetuates “the myth of the criminal immigrant.”

Oregon sheriffs in the state’s most populous counties also did not support Bergin’s letter.

“While Oregon sheriffs see eye-to-eye on many issues, the communities and people that we each represent are incredibly varied, and each sheriff must answer to his own community and conscience,” Washington County Sheriff Patrick Garrett said in a statement to OPB, adding that he supports the state’s sanctuary law.

It’s unclear what effect the endorsement of Measure 105 by the sheriffs will have on the political outcome in November. Though the signatory sheriffs cover 44 percent of the counties in the state, the residents of those counties only make up about 16 percent of Oregon’s population, according to population estimates by Portland State University.

Sheriffs who signed the letter include:

  • Clatsop County Sheriff Tomas Bergin
  • Gilliam County Sheriff Gary Bettencourt
  • Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward
  • Morrow County Sheriff Ken Matlack
  • Sherman County Sheriff Brad Lohrey
  • Umatilla County Sheriff Terry Rowan
  • Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe
  • Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin
  • Curry County Sheriff John Ward
  • Coos County Sheriff Craig Zanni
  • Klamath County Sheriff Chris Kaber
  • Union County Sheriff Boyd Rasmussen
  • Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer
  • Wheeler County Sheriff Chris Humphrey
  • Lake County Sheriff Mike Taylor
  • Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson