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

At a booth at the recent state fair in Salem, people waited in line at a booth for Oregonians for Immigration Reform to sign the group’s proposed ballot measure to repeal Oregon’s so-called “sanctuary law.”

Cynthia Kendoll, the group’s president, said this new measure is attracting more intense interest than its previous attempts to discourage illegal immigration.

“This is something that people are truly really concerned about,” said Kendoll, “and I have just been amazed here at the state fair that people walk up and say, ‘Just let me sign this. I am so sick of this.’”

Oregon may not seem like it is on the front lines of the battle over immigration policy. But the state appears headed toward a bitter election fight on the issue that could reverberate nationally. 

During his presidential campaign last year, Donald Trump put a harsh spotlight on jurisdictions that didn’t fully cooperate with federal immigration officials. In recent weeks, he’s wavered on some immigration issues — such as moving to cut a deal with Democrats on protecting immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children. But his administration continues to attack so-called sanctuary laws.

Andrea Williams, one of the chief opponents of the measure, said the looming ballot fight sets up a choice for voters between going with the Trump administration or sticking with law she says reflects “Oregon values” and has long worked well.

“To me, the issue is very simple,” added Williams, executive director of Causa, a Salem-based immigrant rights group.  “Do we want to spend Oregon resources to do the federal government’s job?”

Oregon 30 years ago adopted a law limiting local and state police involvement with federal enforcement. It was the first statewide law of its kind, but it attracted little attention or controversy. Supporters said the law was needed because some local police officers were detaining Latinos simply based on their appearance.

The term sanctuary came into vogue much later as many cities began resisting large-scale deportations. Critics charged that sanctuary cities were shielding criminals and Trump highlighted the issue in his campaign. 

“We will end the sanctuary cities that have resulted in so many needless deaths,” Trump vowed. At the Republican convention last year, the relatives of people who had been killed by immigrants illegally in the country were prominently featured on stage.

Just a few weeks later, Oregonians for Immigration Reform began laying the groundwork for an initiative to abolish the state law.

Trump’s focus “gave us the backup that this is truly something that people are concerned about,” said Kendoll.

Opponents are gearing up to fight the measure and their feelings are also intense.

“Their ultimate goal is to get rid of immigrants because they want white nationalism in this state,” said state Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, of Oregonians for Immigration Reform.  He argued that Oregon’s sanctuary law helps encourage cooperation with local police.

Andrea Williams is executive director of Causa, an immigrants’ rights group based in Salem, Oregon. She says that her group is working to assemble a broad coalition in opposition to the proposed ballot measure to repeal the state's so-called sanctuary law.

Andrea Williams is executive director of Causa, an immigrants’ rights group based in Salem, Oregon. She says that her group is working to assemble a broad coalition in opposition to the proposed ballot measure to repeal the state’s so-called sanctuary law.

Jeff Mapes/OPB

Causa is helping assemble a broad coalition to oppose the measure. Williams, the group’s executive director, has signed up a sort of who’s who of the major political backers of the Democratic political leadership of the state: the public employee unions, environmental groups as well as gay and abortion rights advocates.

She says her group got a wake-up call three years ago when Oregon voters rejected a new law providing driver’s licenses for people in the country illegally.

The idea was to give people a form of identification that would allow them to drive legally to work and get auto insurance. But Oregonians for Immigration Reform, charging that it only enabled illegal immigration, put the issue on the ballot and won in a landslide.

“We do have to get better at talking to Oregonians about the circumstances — why people here are undocumented and why they have limited solutions to adjust their status,” Williams said. If the sanctuary issue gets on the ballot, she said, her coalition will have to do a lot more to reach out to Oregonians to talk about the lives of immigrants and the economic benefits she said they bring to the state.

Surveys taken in Oregon and in the country as a whole generally show strong support for immigration reform that would provide some sort of path to legal status for people in the country without citizenship. But the sanctuary issue is different.

That became clear in staunchly Democratic California this year. After Trump was elected, the state Senate’s leader, Los Angeles Democrat Kevin de Léon, introduced a statewide sanctuary bill. But instead of winning swift passage and serving as a rebuke to Trump, it languished for months. 

It faced strong opposition from many California law enforcement officials and one independent poll in March showed voters strongly divided on the issue. A watered-down version didn’t pass until the final hours of the legislative session on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017.

It’s still a long time until Oregon’s anti-sanctuary initiative could go before voters in November 2018. But there’s been plenty of early maneuvering around the issue. 

Kendoll’s group was the first to take advantage of a new petitioning rule from Secretary of State Dennis Richardson that allows them to collect signatures while waiting for the ballot title to be finalized. Several groups are challenging Richardson’s rule. If they’re successful, it could put a major crimp in the petition drive. 

Perhaps more crucially, critics of the measure are accusing Oregonians for Immigration Reform of having ties to white nationalism. They say the group has accepted aid from groups and individuals concerned about the changing racial composition of the country.

Kendoll denied that her group is motivated by racial animus.

We’re going after people who are here illegally,” she said.  “Their race, their ethnicity, their religion — anything — has nothing to do with it. It’s, ‘are you in our country legally?’”  

That leads Kendoll to some hard-line views. She said the estimated 11 million people who entered the country illegally should leave, and she supports ending the program allowing those brought here as children to gain legal status. In addition, she backs legislation that would cut legal immigration by half over the next decade.

“When you allow such a large number of people to immigrate legally,” she said, “assimilation is more difficult because they tend to clump together and not assimilate.”

The sanctuary issue provides a hot-button path toward that goal.  

At the Oregonians for Immigration Reform booth, volunteers displayed the mugshot of Sergio Martinez and called him their “poster boy.” 

He’s the man accused of sexually assaulting a 65-year-old woman after being released from the Multnomah County Jail despite being frequently deported. Focusing on this one extreme example infuriates opponents.

“They play off peoples’ fears. That’s how they win,” said Causa’s Williams. She said this line of attack unfairly stereotypes people who enter the country illegally, especially since research shows they are actually less likely to commit crimes. 

If Oregon’s 30-year-old sanctuary law is repealed, the result would likely be a patchwork of local policies. Counties and cities would be able to decide on their own how or if they wanted to limit their involvement with federal immigration enforcement.

The initiative needs 88,184 signatures by next July to qualify for the ballot. Kendoll isn’t saying how many signatures they’ve collected so far.