An Aggressive Anti-Immigration Group Wants to Use the Ballot Box to Erase Oregon’s Sanctuary-State Policy

The choice Oregon voters may soon face: protect undocumented immigrants, or help ICE?

It's not every day that an organization labeled a hate group can be found gathering signatures on the Portland State University campus.

But that's exactly what's happening this month, courtesy of a Salem-based group that wants to make Oregon a hostile environment for undocumented immigrants.

The group, Oregonians for Immigration Reform, is aiming to intensify the debate over Oregon's sanctuary-state law, which prevents local and state police from cooperating with deportations. If OFIR is successful in gathering signatures for its ballot measure, voters in November could be faced with a referendum on the federal immigration crackdown that has divided Americans during the Trump administration.

Here's what you need to know as the group returns to the forefront of Oregon politics:

What would this ballot measure do?
It would repeal Oregon's 31-year-old sanctuary-state law that prevents local and state resources, including money and labor, from being used to enforce federal immigration laws.

These sanctuary policies have wide support from politicians and police across the state, who argue that the law makes Oregon's immigrant communities safer. But federal officials, most notably U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, say sanctuary policies make it harder for immigration enforcement agents to fight drug trafficking and gang violence.

The ballot measure, if passed, would allow local police and sheriff's deputies to assist in identifying, surveilling and detaining undocumented immigrants. It would also allow state resources and money to aid immigration enforcement.

Who's behind the measure?
The measure is spearheaded by Oregonians for Immigration Reform, which was founded in 2000 by a Salem man named Jim Ludwick. The group rose to prominence that year, when it partnered with the militia group called the Minutemen to send "patrols" to day-laborer sites in Oregon where undocumented immigrants looked for farm and construction work. Since then, it has regularly hosted anti-immigration speakers and events in Salem.

OFIR leadership did not respond to WW's requests for comment. But in 2014, OFIR organizer Cynthia Kendoll told WW the group wanted all illegal immigrants to leave the U.S. immediately. "We are told all the time that people come here and want to become Americans," Kendoll said. "I don't think they're interested in becoming U.S. citizens. It's just an organized assault on our culture."

What else puts OFIR back in the news?
Last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center—the nation's leading watchdog of extremist groups—placed OFIR on its annual "Hate Map," a list of the 954 most active hate groups in the United States.

The SPLC has described OFIR as a racist organization since the mid-2000s. But this is the first time it has placed the Oregon group on its short list of hate groups—specifically as an "anti-immigrant, nativist extremist group."

"This year, there was a culmination of all their work that was enough to bring some awareness to what they were doing," says Ryan Lenz, a reporter for the SPLC's Hatewatch website. "They've been active for a while. We felt it was necessary to list them."

Does OFIR stand a chance of passing its measure?
Its track record says yes. In 2014, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to get a temporary driving cards so they could legally get behind the wheel. Elected officials in both parties, as well as the state's business leaders, hailed the bill as a win for safety and the economy.

But OFIR forced the issue to the ballot as Measure 88—and 66 percent of state voters rejected the driver's cards. Multnomah County was the only county in the state to vote in favor of the cards.

Observers say OFIR could struggle to repeat its triumph.

"If the same political environment exists in 2018 as existed in 2014, the measure would pass, and pass handily," says Pacific University politics and government professor Jim Moore. "But the political environment is very different now. Immigration and how people think about it has become something of a referendum on President Trump."

How is the signature collection going?
Two weeks ago, PSU students filed a complaint with the Secretary of State's Office, alleging that paid canvassers were lying about what the ballot measure would do. "I thought it was fishy," student Sunny Petit told Street Roots as she described being told by a canvasser that her signature would help strengthen sanctuary laws and oppose the Trump agenda. "It was totally, totally misleading. There was a line of people around me who were all coming up to sign it."

When will we know if the measure makes the ballot?
OFIR needs 88,184 signatures to get the measure on the ballot. In January, it had to toss out 8,000 signatures, after a legal challenge stymied an attempt to widen the signature-gathering window. The group has spent more than $41,000 on its efforts to repeal the sanctuary law this year, largely bankrolled by an out-of-state $30,000 in-kind donation given to the effort by the national Federation for American Immigration Reform.

The deadline for signatures is July 6, and those signatures will be verified by Aug. 5—the day when we're likely to know whether Oregon faces a referendum on its sanctuary status.

Correction: This story originally quoted a Southern Poverty Law Center reporter as saying that Oregonians for Immigration Reform sponsored a Whiteness History Month. The SPLC representative was wrong. OFIR did not sponsor the event. WW regrets the error.

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