Oregon referendum latest flashpoint in anti-immigrant efforts

Protesters rally against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in San Francisco, February 2018. Photo: Pax Ahimsa Gethen/Wikimedia Commons.

On July 17, the Oregon Secretary of State’s office approved signatures for Initiative Petition 22, a ballot measure that could repeal the state’s so-called sanctuary law. Oregon voters will now vote in November whether to keep or repeal the 1987 law—the latest development in the anti-immigrant movement’s long-running efforts to vilify sanctuary policies and bolster the federal government’s deportation machine.

The referendum effort is spearheaded by Oregonians for Immigration Reform (OFIR), an anti-immigrant group at the forefront of local anti-immigrant mobilizations since its founding in 2000. In 2014, OFIR took advantage of Oregon’s relatively lax signature requirements for statewide referendums and sought to repeal a state law granting driving privileges to some undocumented residents. The effort was successful—2/3 of voters sided with OFIR—boosted by nearly $100,000 from Loren Parks, a Nevada resident and medical supply company owner known for supporting right-wing causes in Oregon. Parks’s contributions went towards paid signature gathering, polling and other management services, and comprised more than 70% of contributions received by OFIR’s Protect Oregon Driver Licenses committee.

OFIR’s current anti-sanctuary referendum campaign is similarly reliant on significant out-of-state funding. Instead of a millionaire businessman, OFIR’s primary source of support for Initiative Petition 22 is the country’s largest anti-immigrant group: the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and its legal arm, the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI). FAIR and IRLI have already provided over $150,000 worth of in-kind donations to OFIR’s Repeal Oregon Sanctuary Law Committee underwriting paid signature gatherers, legal services, administrative costs, as well as online and broadcast advertising, Oregon campaign finance records show. Now that OFIR and its financial backers in Washington, D.C. have placed the referendum on November’s ballot, additional investment is likely.

Sanctuary policies vary from state to state. Generally, the aim is to curtail local law enforcement personnel from enforcing federal immigration laws and lessen the possibility for noncriminal immigrants to be placed in federal custody. Immigration enforcement is the responsibility of federal law enforcement, not local police. And courts have regularly affirmed the legality of sanctuary policies. Contrary to right-wing narratives, immigrants in so-called sanctuary cities are still vulnerable to arrest, detention, and deportation—a reality made all too clear by ICE’s markedly more overzealous enforcement actions  under the Trump administration.

The anti-immigrant movement exploits the ambiguity of sanctuary to frequently mischaracterize policies states and municipalities adopt with the intent to protect immigrant residents.

The anti-immigrant movement exploits the ambiguity of sanctuary to frequently mischaracterize policies states and municipalities adopt with the intent to protect immigrant residents. Even the country’s two most influential anti-immigrant organizations cannot settle on a common definition. In May, FAIR released a report alleging that there are 564 sanctuaries in the country. That same month, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a think tank that was originally founded as a project of FAIR and is often cited as an authority on immigration policies by the White House updated its own list of sanctuaries, claiming there are fewer than 200 sanctuary jurisdictions.

Taking after their out-of-state benefactors, anti-immigrant activists in Oregon similarly misrepresented the state’s sanctuary policies while gathering signatures for the ballot initiative. Earlier this year, one petition signature gatherer, paid with OFIR and FAIR’s support, was caught on video blatantly misrepresenting the referendum effort’s goals as others have relayed reports of similar activity by signature gatherers elsewhere. More recently, OFIR spokesperson Jim Ludwick reportedly took an aggressive tone with a Rewire.News reporter while falsely claiming Oregon’s law prevents law enforcement from turning convicted criminals over to federal immigration enforcement agencies.

Such disingenuous advocacy is an extension of the bigotry and racial animus held by OFIR’s leaders. Among other things, as the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights recalled after OFIR’s 2014 referendum victory:

  • The original iteration of OFIR’s website was hosted on New Nation News, a virulent White nationalist news site, and OFIR events have been attended by members of the White nationalist American Freedom Party;
  • Former OFIR President Richard F. LaMountain has written letters to the anti-Semitic newspaper American Free Press and occasional blogs for White nationalist website VDARE.com;
  • Current OFIR President Cynthia Kendoll has described immigration as “an organized assault on our culture.”

While FAIR has invested significantly in the Oregon referendum effort, it is only one component of its broader anti-sanctuary efforts. Last year in Burien, Washington, FAIR’s legal arm represented anti-immigrant group Respect Washington’s push for a referendum on the city’s sanctuary policy. A superior court judge later prohibited the measure from going on the November ballot following a legal challenge from the Burien Communities for Inclusion coalition.

South on Interstate 5, in California, FAIR and IRLI have actively solicited support for a Department of Justice-initiated lawsuit challenging three pro-immigrant laws enacted in the state last year. FAIR/IRLI have filed multiple amicus briefs supporting the anti-sanctuary litigation on behalf of multiple groups including the National Sheriffs’ Association, Advocates for Victims of Illegal Alien Crime (AVIAC), and the group Fight Sanctuary State. (Fight Sanctuary State, an offshoot of AVIAC, also co-sponsored a ballot initiative to overturn the law, which failed to qualify for November’s ballot). FAIR filed an additional brief on behalf of a coalition of California municipalities and elected officials, a result of lobbying efforts by FAIR, IRLI, and local activists.

If the Trump Administration didn’t directly challenge California’s sanctuary policies in court, the anti-immigrant movement would have. IRLI Executive Director Dale Wilcox revealed this plan during an interview with Breitbart News, shortly after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the lawsuit earlier this year:

We actually were going to sue California, I can tell you now. We were preparing a lawsuit ourselves and had more than ten cities who had signed on. So if the feds hadn’t done this, we were going to. We were getting tired of California thumbing its nose at the rest of us. It’s good to see the Trump administration is finally going on offense against these lawless, open border radicals, as Attorney General Sessions called them the other day.

A federal judge rebuked the Trump administration and its anti-immigrant supporters on July 9, by dismissing the anti-sanctuary lawsuit. Federal judges similarly struck a blow to IRLI and the Department of Justice’s anti-sanctuary efforts in another lawsuit, Chicago v. Sessions. The lawsuit, filed by the City of Chicago last year, stemmed from Sessions’ effort to deny federal law enforcement funds to sanctuary jurisdictions. (IRLI filed an amicus brief defending Sessions’s efforts.) Judges on the 7th Circuit Court ruled in Chicago’s favor in April. In June, Sessions appealed the ruling, in part, to the U.S. Supreme Court. And on July 26, a federal judge denied the Justice Department’s motion to dismiss three key counts of Chicago’s legal challenge.

In May, the Southern Poverty Law Center noted the anti-immigrant movement’s efforts to stymie sanctuary policies in other states including Tennessee, Iowa, Indiana, and Massachusetts.

Given the Right’s capture of significant portions of the U.S. court system, punitive measures for sanctuary jurisdictions remain a serious possibility.

Given the Right’s capture of significant portions of the U.S. court system, punitive measures for sanctuary jurisdictions remain a serious possibility. But the anti-immigrant movement isn’t waiting on the courts. In Oregon, the movement has a significant opportunity, as it did during the 2014 driver card referendum, to exploit a low-turnout midterm election for substantial policy gain. In response, a movement is coalescing in Oregon to resist Initiative Petition 22 at the ballot box. Earlier in July, Oregonians United Against Profiling coalition announced its intent to “mount an aggressive statewide campaign to defeat the measure.” The coalition of civil rights groups as well as business, labor, and faith leaders surpassed 100 members within two weeks of its formation.

Their campaign to defend Oregon’s immigrant communities from the ever-increasing threat of mass deportation will be difficult, but is necessary. Their opposition has already spent more than a quarter million dollars—a figure that will no doubt increase as OFIR, FAIR, and the broader anti-immigrant movement sees the prospect of replicating its 2014 success in Oregon.