PORTLAND — Opponents of an Oregon ballot measure that would repeal the nation’s oldest statewide sanctuary law on Monday launched a counter-campaign as elections officials scrambled to certify the tens of thousands of voter signatures required to place the issue on a November ballot.
Oregon’s sanctuary law is the oldest in the nation and one of only a handful of similarly broad laws in the U.S. — and a battle over its future could draw the famously liberal state into the middle of the national immigration debate this fall.
Joined by law enforcement officials, members of a newly formed political action group called Oregonians United Against Profiling held nearly simultaneous news conferences in five cities Monday across Oregon to voice opposition to the proposed measure.
Backers of Initiative Petition 22 turned in more than 105,000 voter signatures by a July 6 deadline; under state law, the measure’s sponsors must gather roughly 88,000 valid signatures by that date to get it before voters. It may be another two weeks or more before all the signatures are validated.
“We’ve decided to move ahead so that we have the strongest coalition possible,” said Andrea Williams, executive director of Causa, an immigrant rights group. “If it were to pass . we believe that it would take Oregon back to a time when racial profiling was even more rampant than it is today.”
The 1987 sanctuary law prohibits state agencies from inquiring about a person’s immigration status if they haven’t committed another crime and bans state and local law enforcement from coordinating with federal immigration officials on raids and roundups.
The law, which passed with bipartisan support, grew out of an episode in the town of Independence, where officers singled out a group of Latino men in a restaurant and aggressively interrogated them about their citizenship status.
It was passed to address racial profiling, Williams said, and not to make a political statement about immigration.
“Oregon legislators said that’s not the Oregon way and they also said it’s not a good use of our resources. It’s critical to remind voters this was passed for a real reason in our state and if we were to take it away, it would take us back to a time when Oregonians weren’t treated fairly,” Williams said.
With help from anti-sanctuary groups, a trio of Republican lawmakers from rural parts of the state sponsored the initiative to repeal the law. A group behind the effort, Oregonians for Immigration Reform, has been labeled an anti-immigrant hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center — a designation it is refuting.
Cynthia Kendoll, the group’s president, said in a phone interview Monday that because Oregon’s state Legislature is controlled by Democrats, a voter initiative is the only way to change immigration law.
Kendoll’s group was involved in a 2014 ballot measure campaign that successfully overturned a law passed by the Oregon lawmakers to give driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally.
“The only thing this initiative does is give the voters the opportunity to decide if Oregon will be a sanctuary state or not — and they either will or they won’t,” she said, as she watched elections workers checking signatures.
“We’re working on giving people the chance to vote on this. Voters very rarely have an opportunity to have a say in immigration policy.”