Driving Her Loco

Cynthia Kendoll runs a group that some say is fueled by racism. She's also about to score a major political victory in Oregon.

The people next door to her Salem home trim their bushes with machetes. They have turned their garage into a dormitory and unlicensed day care with little children in diapers running around. They park their cars on the street—her son almost missed his prom because they blocked her driveway. Their poodle attacked her pants leg.

She’s tried to talk to them. “They just sort of conveniently acted like they didn’t understand,” she says. 

Kendoll has repeatedly filed code-violation complaints with the city of Salem over the past 12 years. She recalls how one city official explained the situation with her neighbors: "She said to me, 'Get used to it, honey. It's a cultural thing.'"

By cultural thing, Kendoll means her neighbors are Latino. She is white.

Kendoll, 60, president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, is telling this story at a favorite restaurant, the Olive Garden near her home.

In talking about her neighbors, she avoids the word Mexican, Guatemalan or Honduran—or even Latino. She prefers "illegal immigrant."

Kendoll's group calls for all undocumented immigrants to leave the United States immediately. Its uncompromising views have left the organization on the margin of many political debates in Salem.

But Kendoll has brought Oregonians for Immigration Reform to the brink of its biggest political victory in Oregon. She wants to be careful, because she knows how easily she might be misunderstood.

She says she doesn't know if the people next door are illegals, but she suspects her neighbors have routinely harbored some.

"Let me be clear," she says, leaning over her plate of smoked mozzarella fonduta. "I'm not saying that they're the only kind of people who don't follow the laws. I'm saying that I hear hundreds of stories about neighborhoods being degraded.

"We are told all the time that people come here and want to become Americans," Kendoll adds. "I don't think they're interested in becoming U.S. citizens. It's just an organized assault on our culture."

In November, Oregon voters will weigh in on Measure 88, which would authorize giving four-year driver's cards to people who can't prove they are in the United States legally. The Legislature approved the law in 2013 with one of the broadest coalitions of business and labor groups seen at the state Capitol in years.

The driver's card bill was backed by powerful restaurant and agriculture industries wanting to get their undocumented workers legally on the roads. The measure was passed in April 2013 by a Democratic majority in Salem and signed May 1 after a bilingual speech by Gov. John Kitzhaber at a victory rally on the Capitol steps.

Supporters argued the measure would make Oregon's roads safer—many of the state's estimated 160,000 undocumented residents already drive, and the official DMV cards would require them to pass a written and driving test. Without question, Democrats wanted to solve a small part of the immigration problem here, given Congress' failure to do so, while shoring up political support from the growing ranks of Latino voters.

Kendoll is about to turn it all back.

Oregonians for Immigration Reform quickly gathered 58,291 signatures, forced a statewide vote on the bill and is now working to defeat it by encouraging a "no" vote. There have been few publicly released surveys on Measure 88, but sources familiar with private polling say Oregonians are leaning overwhelmingly against the measure, even though the "no" campaign is being outspent 10-to-1.

The stakes extend beyond the 160,000 undocumented immigrants living in Oregon, according to the most recent figures from the Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project. Ten U.S. states—including California and Washington—have passed laws creating driver's permits for people living in the country illegally. But Oregon is the first state where the question has been put to a public vote.

The issue pits civil rights against cultural warfare in a debate over an unmistakable reality: Tens of thousands of undocumented residents provide the spine of many of Oregonians' basic industries, and treating them wholesale like criminals creates a dilemma for the state over economics, justice and race.

But Kendoll and her organization see it in plainer terms: The state of Oregon should not give anyone who lives here illegally any kind of government sanction, let alone a card that would allow them to drive on public roads.

It is a display of power from a group that's been called heartless, xenophobic and even racist. Kendoll, who dismisses those labels as unfair, believes the safety and character of the nation depend on her group succeeding in its mission.

"My ill will isn't with the people who come here and break our laws," Kendoll says. "My problem is with the government officials who encourage them in breaking the law."


Oregon has seen its Latino population grow rapidly in the past two decades. Many were drawn to the state's agriculture industry decades ago, but in recent years immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America have settled throughout the state and taken up all kinds of work. Today, Latinos make up 12.3 percent of Oregon's population, up from 8 percent in 2000.

"Ninety-three percent of Latinos 18 and under are U.S. citizens," says Andrea Miller, executive director of Latino rights group Causa Oregon. "They were born here. Yet 60 percent have undocumented folks in their families. Undocumented residents aren't just isolated individuals, they came with attachments to families."

The migration has increased tension in many towns across Oregon, as the numbers of undocumented residents continues to rise.

"Oregon has always had different immigrant groups in the state," Miller says. "The difference is the number of people—and the fact that these people are no longer immigrants. They're our fellow citizens."

Immigration is largely a federal issue, but state lawmakers were forced to wrestle with it in 2008, when they passed Senate Bill 1080, barring anyone who could not prove they were a U.S. citizen from obtaining an Oregon driver's license.

The law was driven by federal security concerns, and it ended practices that had allowed many undocumented residents to get driver's licenses.

Six years later, many of the licenses issued before legislators passed the new law have expired, leaving undocumented residents without a legal way to drive to work or go about their lives.

Measure 88—passed by the 2013 Legislature and now on the November ballot—creates a new category of driver in Oregon. The bill requires immigrants to provide valid identification from their home country and evidence of having lived in Oregon for at least a year. It doesn't require proof the resident is in the U.S. legally.

Senate Bill 833 passed with backing from Latino rights groups, including Causa Oregon, and the support of the agriculture and hospitality lobbies. Those industries are among the biggest employers of undocumented immigrants—and the bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Chuck Thomsen (R-Hood River), who owns a pear orchard and says he doesn't verify whether his workers are legal residents.

Without a legal way to drive to work, they argue, their workers risk losing their jobs and hurting the businesses that employ them. Jeff Stone, executive director for the Oregon Association of Nurseries, admits his industry is in a tight spot politically.

"The immigration system is broken," Stone says. "It has created a whole tier of unappetizing choices, not only for community members, but for employers and employees. We can cast aspersions or we can fix the problem."

In shifting the argument for the bill, backers have made it about safety, pointing out all the steps an undocumented resident would have to go through to earn a driver's card.

"We're trying to make our roads safer," Stone says, "by allowing folks who otherwise would not have access to learning the rules of the road to take a test and be on the road safely."

In July, Causa Oregon launched "100 Days of Stories," testimonials of people who currently can't obtain driver's licenses. "Families are coming out, saying they're undocumented and telling stories about their lives," Miller says. "Voters now have to be the legislators."

But to opponents, the issue begins and ends over whether these residents and workers even belong here in the first place. 

"People know in their guts that there's something wrong about rewarding people who have knowingly broken the law," Kendoll says. "America is generous and gregarious and welcoming. But we too have a limit."

At age 60, she talks gently and deliberately, like she's still leading a class of nervous students. She's a small woman in brown Converse All-Stars and copper-rimmed glasses the color of her hair. Her routine includes weekly trivia nights at the local Applebee's.

Her husband, Jerry, teaches fifth grade for Salem-Keizer Public Schools. In 2003, Jerry Kendoll wrote to the editor of the Salem Statesman Journal. In the letter, he said he was dumbfounded to learn that a Portland credit union was loaning money to people who were in the U.S. illegally.

"Shouldn't we work to stop making Oregon the patsy," he wrote, "and enforce our laws to require citizenship, or legal status, for all employment, financial, medical, and governmental social services?"

The letter intrigued Jim Ludwick, who three years earlier had co-founded Oregonians for Immigration Reform.

Ludwick invited the Kendolls to attend a meeting. Jerry shied away from getting too involved—he didn't want to jeopardize his teaching job. But Cynthia didn't hesitate.

"She's gone from zero to 100 in a very short time," says state Rep. Kim Thatcher (R-Keizer), a Kendoll fan and Oregonians for Immigration Reform ally.

Ludwick credits Kendoll with steering the group after she became president in 2009.

"She's four times better than me," Ludwick says. "Every time we came to a fork in the road, she made the right choice."

Kendoll was good at unglamorous work like compiling lists of volunteers. But Oregonians for Immigration Reform waged mostly unsuccessful fights. In 2008, it backed Measure 58, which would have limited foreign-language classes in public schools. And it tried to stop a state law allowing children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition.

In 2012, Kendoll attended and posted photos of a trip she took to the Mexican border, standing in front of the fence near El Paso, Texas, with Multnomah County Undersheriff Tom Moore. WW reported that Moore had joined the "border school and tour" sponsored by the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Border trips are a badge of honor for activists who oppose illegal immigration. Kendoll has made three visits, most recently last month. FAIR's border school included the classes "Drug Cartels: Structured Like Terrorist Organizations" and "From the Texas Gulf Coast to a City Near You."

Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton quickly distanced his office from the anti-immigration movement. "We do not endorse any ideology or agenda specific to these groups," Staton said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks and sues racist organizations and militias, has labeled FAIR a "hate group" and named Oregonians for Immigration Reform one of 38 "nativist extremist groups" operating in the country for its opposition to in-state college tuition for children of immigrants.

Kendoll dismisses the labels. "I've been called worse," she says. "I would encourage people to look at our website."

The "10 principles of immigration reform" listed on that website do not mention ethnicity. Instead, the list says anyone living illegally in the county should leave.

"Those who do not take advantage of this opportunity," the statement concludes, "will be removed and permanently barred from returning."

Kendoll says she's not seeking to "round people up." She wants local governments to enforce current immigration law.

She compares the U.S. job market to a roadside carnival, and immigrants to children peering in through the fence.

"If there's no carnival—no rides, no cotton candy, no Pronto Pups—would you climb the fence?" she asks. "Probably not. So I say, shut down the carnival. There's nothing here for them except a trip home."

Last week, Kendoll was a call-in guest on radio host Eddie V. Garcia's twice-weekly show on KLBM-AM 1450 in La Grande, a city of 13,000 in the northeast corner of Oregon.

Garcia opened the show by reading a Bible verse, 1 Peter 5:8: "Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour."

"That certainly can be said about our government," Garcia added. Then a child read the Second Amendment while "Yankee Doodle" played.

Kendoll mildly recounted how the sight of Kitzhaber cheering the passage of the driver's card bill set her on her present mission.

(Kitzhaber's speech, which he delivered to a cheering crowd in both English and Spanish, declared the law "promises us equal opportunity to succeed, no matter what language we speak at home.")

"We immediately put our heads together and said, 'We can't let this go,'" Kendoll told Garcia. "We need to send a long, long, strong message to the leaders."

Kendoll set about collecting enough signatures to force a referral of the measure—a daunting task. She got the 58,291 valid signatures within four months.

Getting to the ballot required a boost from reclusive Nevada businessman Loren Parks, who has long bankrolled conservative ballot measures in Oregon. He gave Oregonians for Immigration Reform $98,173 in polling and professional signature gatherers.

So far this year, the campaign against the measure, called Protect Oregon Driver Licenses, has raised only $28,401. Compare that to the yes on Measure 88 campaign, which has collected $286,312, with donations from food workers' and public employee unions, agriculture industries and the campaign war chest of state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian.

But the campaign against the measure is rallying very motivated volunteers who are incensed by the Legislature's action. For starters, the campaign says, current Oregon law is intended to prevent terrorists from obtaining government ID. The campaign has also tried to knock down claims by the bill's supporters that the new law would make Oregon's roads safer.

"Among the illegal aliens," the campaign website says, "there are many who drink and drive recklessly and have killed or maimed innumerable innocent citizens in road crashes. Furthermore, the deadly drug trade flourishes in Oregon because illegal aliens are either directly involved themselves or can be forced by drug lords to aid them."

Political observers who have looked at the latest polling figures tell WW that Measure 88 is probably doomed to a landslide defeat.

"Long term, the strategy of making this against people of color is so stupid," says Joe Baessler, lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75, a labor union backing the measure. "But in the short term, this is going to be an uphill battle."

Backers of the measure have tried to steer the campaign away from immigration policy, which everyone seems to agree has failed.

"It is incredibly offensive to me that they portray a whole group of people as criminals, as terrorists," Causa Oregon's Miller says. "I never get used to it."

Stone, director of the nursery association, says Kendoll is succeeding by frightening Oregonians—by warning, for example, that Mexican cartels will use driver's cards for drug trafficking.

"What they want is to vilify these immigrants," he says. "I find it repugnant."

Kendoll says the message of the campaign is the opposite of racist: It's delivering a message of law and order from a nation that has already shown it has a tremendous heart.

"How is it OK for people to come in from other countries and tell us how to treat them?" Kendoll asks. "We're the kindest, most civilized country on earth. This wouldn't happen in any other country. That's part of the problem."

On Sept. 27, a Saturday, clouds break apart over Salem as pickup trucks and minivans begin arriving at a Best Western across Highway 22 from McNary Field at the Salem Municipal Airport.

In a conference room down the hall from the hotel's indoor pool, Oregonians for Immigration Reform is hosting its fall campaign kickoff. Kendoll has prepared a table of campaign materials: yard signs, neon yellow pencils, and red paper fans in the shape of stop signs.

Attendance is about 75—that's also close to the median age. It's a sea of polo shirts and cardigans, including one embroidered with tiny American flags.

"What's the most important thing we can do in November?" Kendoll asks the crowd.

"Vote!" they respond in unison.

"Do you think they should be given driver's cards?"


The guest speaker is Derek Hernandez, a regional vice president for the National Border Patrol's labor union. He asks Kendoll to read a letter from the 8-year-old daughter of a Border Patrol agent killed in 2008, run over by a Hummer driver trying to enter Arizona illegally.

"Why did God make you leave us?" she reads from the letter. "You were my life. You were my daddy."

Hernandez then opens the floor for questions. He calls on a Latino man in a tan Army cap. The man has been seething throughout the presentation, muttering I can refute this easily during Hernandez's presentation.

"No human being should be called an illegal alien," he tells Hernandez, his voice breaking in anger. "I'm an American, too. I'm just different than you. I'm just a different color."

Boos rise from the center of the room. "Shut up!" someone yells. Kendoll asks the crowd to hush. Ludwick crosses the room and tries to put his arm around the man's shoulder.

"Don't touch me!" he yells.

Another man, with white hair and large rimless glasses, stands up and stretches out his arms toward the speaker.

"A lot of us are going to touch you," he says, "if you don't shut up."

The man gives up and leaves. Kendoll follows him into the parking lot, asking for a conversation.

He stares at her in fury. "America," he hisses and walks away from the Best Western.

Kendoll shrugs. "I tried," she says.

Back in the conference room, Kendoll delivers a gentle scolding before recounting her latest trip to El Paso. "We need to remember to always take the high road," she says. "We're law-abiding citizens. We don't want this to degrade into a shouting match. We win nothing when we do that."

Everyone trudges outside, waving "No on 88" signs for 10 minutes at honking cars on Highway 22 where it passes a Costco.

Kendoll is in a good mood as she walks to her pickup truck.

"We're on the side of right," she says. "If it's an honest election, and only the people who are registered to vote, vote, I think we'll win."

WW news intern Sami Edge contributed reporting to this story.

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