Oregon state Rep. Sal Esquivel

Oregon state Rep. Sal Esquivel

Casey Minter/OPB

At least two members of the Oregon Legislature want to repeal a 1987 statute that prevents police from enforcing federal immigration law.

Right now, law enforcement agencies can’t use their resources to apprehend immigrants if their only violation is being in the country illegally.

But a potential ballot measure would do away with the long-standing state statute.

“Law enforcement is prohibited from enforcing the law,” said Republican Rep. Mike Nearman of Independence.

Nearman, along with Republican Rep. Sal Esquivel of Medford, wants to get the measure on the 2018 ballot. Oregon law requires 1,000 signatures to begin the process, which they’ve already collected.

But the Oregon Department of Justice has refused to give Nearman a ballot title.

The DOJ argues Nearman’s group wasn’t clear about what they were asking people to sign when they collected signatures.

“Based on our review, it does not appear that a person signing the petition would necessarily have understood that they were signing a petition in favor of repealing an existing statute,” Assistant Attorney General Shannon Reel wrote in an Oct. 28 letter, denying a request from the Secretary of State’s Office to draft a ballot title.

Nearman said he’s working with attorneys to determine whether to take legal action against the DOJ or collect the signatures again.

“Law enforcement needs this as a tool to be able to make a dent in illegal immigration. I think we’re going in the wrong direction,” Nearman said.

Oregon lawmakers passed the law in the 1980s because several local police departments and federal immigration officials conducted raids that targeted the state’s Latino community, said Andrea Williams, the executive director of Causa, an advocacy organization that works with Latino immigrants.

During the raids, she said, many U.S. citizens and other lawful residents were swept up.

“This law was passed in the 1980s was for a very important reason: to end discrimination based on race or perceived ethnic origin and to ensure that everybody’s civil and human rights are protected,” Williams said.

She said the law is also important because it helps foster trust between police and immigrants.

“When communities, especially immigrant communities that tend of be fearful of interacting with police officers, have an increased fear it reduces the number of people coming forward as witnesses. More crimes go unreported and people are less likely to report suspicious activity,” she said.