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Rural Oregon Sheriffs Lead Charge to Repeal State’s Sanctuary Law

More than one dozen sheriffs support Measure 105 that would allow for cooperation with federal authorities even when an immigrant suspect has not been apprehended for any crime.

An immigrant identifying herself only as Vioney, who spent six months in an ICE detention facility, holds her grandson for the first time while being reunited with family members at Portland International Airport in Portland, Oregon, in September.Photo Illustration by Anagraph / Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

In 1977, Delmiro Treviño was sitting in a restaurant in Independence, Oregon, when police entered and began questioning him. Treviño was born in Texas, but officers harassed him about his ethnicity and his accent, and demanded proof of citizenship.

Treviño was humiliated in front of his friends, family, and the restaurant’s patrons.  He was also angry.

“Usually people backed down, because this kind of treatment was just a way of life,” said Rocky Barilla, an attorney who sued Independence on Treviño’s behalf. “They didn’t want to be in the crosshairs of local law enforcement. This guy complained.”

The case against the city was settled within a year, but Barilla saw racial profiling as a statewide problem. In 1986, Barilla became the first Latinx elected to Oregon’s legislature, where he drafted legislation to prevent state and local law enforcement from enforcing federal immigration laws as well as aiding in the apprehension of undocumented immigrants.

Oregon became the first state in the nation to pass a law limiting cooperation between local officials and immigration authorities, often described as a “sanctuary law,” a measure that has been adopted by an increasing number of politically left-leaning municipalities in the absence of federal immigration reform.

Oregon’s law passed in 1987 with bipartisan support. It was enacted soon after the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, offered a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.

But Oregon’s law is now facing a repeal effort, in part because of tensions around immigration inflamed by President Trump, who has promised a crackdown on “sanctuary cities,” new restrictions on legal immigration, and a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The group leading the effort, Oregonians for Immigration Reform (OFIR), was listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center because of its ties to border vigilantes including one who has referred to immigrants as “Mexican Nazis.” OFIR has found success at the polls in the past, helping pass a statewide initiative in 2014 that prevented undocumented immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses. And the repeal effort has financial support from anti-immigrant group Federation for American Immigration Reform, a leader behind the scenes in shaping Trump’s immigration policies.

Oregon law enforcement is divided on the state’s sanctuary law. But 16 sheriffs from rural counties, led by Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin, who is also the former president of the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association, signed a letter calling for its repeal. In the Trump era, sheriffs like Bergin are among the most prominent voices on immigration policy; in early September, a group of sheriffs met with the president at the White House to “re-establish the rule of law” on illegal immigration. In an interview with The Appeal, Bergin said that two more sheriffs later added their support to his letter, totaling half of the state’s 36 sheriffs.

In the letter, Bergin dismissed the idea that the sanctuary law’s repeal would “unleash a wave of profiling of Hispanics” because law enforcement undergoes anti-profiling training; he also assured Oregonians that “I have never witnessed an instance of racial profiling from any of my deputies.”  And Bergin wrote about the July murder of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, allegedly at the hands of Cristhian Bahena Rivera whom Trump described as a “horrible person who came in from Mexico.” Despite the fact that Rivera’s immigration status is unknown, Bergin insisted in the letter that Oregon’s sanctuary law “compounds” the “neglect” that led to Tibbetts’s murder.

“This has nothing to do with being prejudiced,” Bergin said. “It boils down to the rule of law.”

The repeal effort, known as Measure 105, would allow for cooperation with federal authorities even when an immigrant suspect has not been apprehended for any crime. Under current law, ICE can still seek criminal warrants to keep suspects detained locally. Some law enforcement agencies in Oregon regularly turn over jail booking reports and mugshots to federal immigration agencies.

In May, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project released a survey in which law enforcement reported increasing difficulty in obtaining cooperation from crime victims who are undocumented immigrants. According to the report, which connects such mistrust to the immigration policies of the Trump administration, 67 percent of participating officers said they believe immigrants’ fear has hindered their ability to help victims of crimes.

In August, Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett and District Attorney Kevin Barton released a statement opposing Measure 105, saying a repeal of Oregon’s sanctuary law would lead to “a patchwork of inconsistent ordinances and rules from various cities and counties.”

“Immigrant communities and families may become greater targets for criminals because they may be less likely to come forward or appear in court to testify,” they wrote. “These are not hypothetical concerns; we have already seen these issues occur.”

Measure 105 appears likely to fail on Nov. 6, but polling suggests that there are a significant number of undecided voters. A poll conducted by Oregon Public Broadcasting from Oct. 4 to 11 shows 45 percent of voters opposed to Measure 105 and 32 percent in support, with almost one quarter undecided.

Immigrant rights advocates caution that in a midterm-year voter turnout may be unpredictable. “A growing majority of Oregonians oppose Measure 105, but we are not taking any vote for granted,” Peter Zuckerman, a “No on 105” campaign spokesperson, told The Appeal. “We are canvassing, phone banking, holding house parties. The bottom line lesson for us is we can’t take any vote for granted.”