Support for Oregon’s Ballot Measure 105 Reveals Collaboration Between Right-Wing Sheriffs and Anti-Immigrant Networks

About Cloee Cooper

Image: President Donald Trump meets with sheriffs from across the country during an event at the White House on September 5, 2018. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In August 2018, 16 of Oregon’s 36 sheriffs signed a letter in support of ballot measure 105, the referendum in the November 6 election to repeal Oregon’s 31-year-old sanctuary law.  Oregon’s sanctuary law, which prohibits the use of state and federal resources to enforce federal immigration law if there is no previous criminal record, was adopted in 1987 following allegations that Polk County sheriff’s deputies and police officers racially profiled and harassed undocumented immigrants. Some of the sheriffs that have publicly signed the letter to repeal Oregon’s sanctuary status work closely with a Far Right network of sheriffs called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. Others are working closely with the national anti-immigrant organization, the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Sheriffs play a critical role in local incarceration and detention (i.e. running county jails, often with DHS contracts). Oregon sheriffs, aligned with the Trump administration’s mass deportation goals on one hand and flanked by Far Right and anti-immigrant organizations on the other, pose a threat to Oregon communities. Collaboration between sheriff’s departments and Far Right and White supremacist networks is not a new trend.

Oregon was founded on racial exclusion laws, with its 1857 Constitution prohibiting any African Americans from moving to the state who were not already residents. In the 1970s, Oregon also became a center for the Posse Comitatus movement, which was mobilized around many of the same issues the Patriot movement and Constitutional Sheriffs movement mobilize around today, including anti-federal government stances in support of gun rights, citizen militia, fake courts, and armed takeovers.

Oregon sheriffs, which are elected by the county, are disproportionately White and male, a trend which is true overall in the United States (95 percent of the over 3081 sheriffs in the United States are White, while 99 percent of them are male). Local sheriffs and governments have a long history of acting independently of the Federal Government to restrict the rights and freedoms of African Americans and other minorities when the Federal Government does not align with their values. Perhaps the most documented period of this was the Jim Crow era in the South when local government, including sheriffs, acted in defiance of federal law or policy shifts to repress or restrict rights and freedoms of African Americans. In line with this history, some of the sheriffs supporting the repeal of Oregon’s state sanctuary law, are proudly sympathetic to the Patriot movement and working in close alignment with the contemporary anti-immigrant movement. However, rather than taking such stances in defiance of the federal government, county sheriffs are encouraged by the Trump administration to enforce and advocate for a hard line anti-immigrant agenda.

Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin, who authored the letter in support of Ballot Measure 105, has been an active member of the far right Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) and has a history of anti-immigrant advocacy. He and several other sheriffs supported the 2014 referendum opposing driver’s licenses for undocumented residents. Of the sheriffs who signed onto the letter, Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer, Clatsop County Sheriff Bergin, Coos County Sheriff Craig Zanni, Curry County Sheriff John Ward, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin, Klamath County Sheriff Chris Kaber, Lake County Sheriff Mike Taylor, Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson, Union County Sheriff Boyd Rasmussen, and Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe are affiliated to the Far Right Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, while Morrow County Sheriff Matlack has developed a strong working relationship with FAIR and attended multiple events at the White House under the Trump administration.

Under Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, local law enforcement agents can apply to be cross-designated as federal immigration authorities. On January 25, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order strengthening 287(g) and opening up more room for local law enforcement to act as immigration control, resulting in an increased cooperation between the Trump administration and Oregon’s anti-immigrant sheriffs.

The Anti-Immigrant Movement recruiting Oregon Sheriffs

Ballot measure 105 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. Current OFIR President Cynthia Kendoll has described immigration as “an organized assault on our culture.” OFIR’s primary source of support for Measure 105 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, Oregon campaign finance records show.

The contemporary anti-immigrant movement’s recent outreach priorities has included county sheriffs. FAIR, the movement’s flagship organization founded in 1979 by White nationalist John Tanton, sponsored and exhibited at official National Sheriffs Association (NSA) events since 2015. FAIR was a sponsor of the NSA’s 2015 Winter Conference and had an exhibition booth at the NSA’s 2017 and 2018 conferences.

FAIR’s primary inroad with sheriffs in Oregon has been Morrow County Sheriff Matlack, who signed Bergin’s letter in support of ballot measure 105. Matlack attended FAIR’s 2014 “border summit” for sheriffs in Texas organized and paid for by FAIR, to “assess potential impact of Border Surge on their communities.” The following year, Matlack urged fellow sheriffs in Oregon to attend, writing in an email to Begin among others, “I suggest you contact Susan [Tully, FAIR’s National Field Director] directly by email and CC me so I can help her in any way I can to make this the biggest and best attendance by Sheriffs across the country who already know they are border Sheriffs no matter what state they live in.” Sheriff Bergin, expressed interest at the time in attending FAIR’s border summit, according to public records. Matlack has maintained a close relationship with FAIR, most recently participating in their annual “Hold Their Feet to the Fire” event in DC in September 2018.

Matlack recently returned from a trip to the White House with nearly 50 sheriffs from 35 States to meet with senators, representatives, and President Donald Trump. The goal of the meeting was allegedly to discuss legislative action that will increase border security and reform the immigration system. At the event, Sheriff Matlack and a group of 43 sheriffs from around the country announced the roll out of a National Sheriffs’ Association crowdfunding website – www.SheriffsWall.org –  to raise money for the funding and construction of a wall along the country’s southern border.

At FAIR’s 2015 border summit, Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack, the founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) was invited to present. The CSPOA was founded in 2011 by Mack, who was also a lobbyist for Gun Owners of America (GOA) and is known for his challenge to the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and his role in the militia organization, Oath Keepers. Mack was a founding director of the Oath Keepers and continued to serve as a director and later the organization’s most prominent spokesperson and a member of the board of directors. Mack has led the contemporary Constitutional Sheriffs movement, rallying sheriffs nationwide uphold the constitution, often with an anti-federal government underpinning. In 2009, Mack self-published “The County Sheriff: America’s Last Hope,” a fifty-page manifesto with a sheriff’s star on the front and an endorsement from Joe Arpaio on the back.

“The idea of a constitutional sheriff emerged in the nineteen-seventies, in California,” noted Ashley Powers in a recent New Yorker article on Constitutional Sheriffs. It was first proposed by William Potter Gale, who embraced a belief system called Christian Identity, and preached that the Constitution was a divinely inspired document intended to elevate whites above Jews and racial minorities.

Grant County Sheriff Palmer, one of the Oregon sheriffs supporting ballot measure 105, is Oregon’s most famous constitutional sheriff.  He was listed on CSPOA’s board of directors and received their honorary award as the “Constitutional Sheriff of the Year” in 2012. He served on the CSPOA Council of Sheriffs, Peace Officers and Public Officials from 2012-2015. In 2015 he met with occupiers during the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation by non-governmental militias and the sovereign citizen movement, and publicly sympathized with the occupation, becoming a heroic figure among the activists and their supporters. Years earlier, Palmer was featured on The Power Hour, a right-wing radio show, where he was invited to speak about his refusal to cooperate with the US Forest Service. “It is the sheriff who has the duty and authority of upholding the Constitution as well as carrying out enforcement of our laws and determining if they’re constitutional or not… Someone has got to stand up,” he noted on the show in 2011.

Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin, another signatory, shares many of the CSPOA’s core beliefs. In 2010, he announced plans for a Douglas County Sheriff’s Posse, saying he was responding to volunteer requests. He joined Sheriff Mack in an aggressive letter-writing campaign to Vice President Joe Biden in 2013, in which they vowed not to enforce any federal laws that tightened gun restrictions, claiming that “the United States Supreme Court has ruled that when a Sheriff chooses to enforce an unconstitutional directive, he is violating his Constitutional Oath. I will NOT violate my Constitutional Oath… nor will I permit the enforcement of any unconstitutional regulations or orders by federal officers within the borders of Douglas County Oregon.”

In 2014, Hanlin was acknowledged by CSPOA, as one of 485 sheriffs nationally who made a public statement vowing to refuse to locally enact gun control laws. He continued to actively participate with CSPOA through 2016, according to public records.

Sheriffs claim loyalty to the communities that elect them. But, the Far Right and anti-immigrant networks collaborating with many of the Oregon sheriffs publicly supporting ballot measure 105, poses a risk to Oregon communities – both within and outside county jail and detention facilities.

Sydney Boles contributed to this report.

Cloee Cooper (PRA Research Analyst) holds a master’s degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism, specializing in social justice and investigative reporting. Cloee tracked, monitored and organized against anti-immigrant organizations with ties to white nationalism with the Center for New Community from 2009-2012. Her work can be seen at Chicago’s local PBS affiliate – WTTW, Alternet, Social Justice News Nexus, Imagine2050, Hard Crackers and in a Chicago Tribune investigation. She currently serves on the Editorial Board of Hard Crackers, a journal documenting the everyday life of those striving to overturn the mess we are in.