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Oregon Sheriffs Urge Voters to Kill State’s Sanctuary Law

Eighteen of Oregon’s 36 elected sheriffs are urging the state’s voters to support Measure 105, which is a November ballot proposal to do away with the 1987 law that set up the nation’s first sanctuary state -- stopping state and local police from helping ICE round up illegal immigrants.

The statement, initiated by Clatsop County, Ore., Sheriff Thomas J. Bergin, and co-signed by 17 other sheriffs, pointed to the July Iowa murder of Mollie Tibbetts as an example of the damage that can be done by “illegal-immigrant criminals.”

The letter also argues that the very concept of Oregon’s sanctuary state law is wrong.

“The statute undermines respect for law in significant ways,” reads the letter. “It tells illegal immigrants that Oregon considers immigration-law violations so inconsequential as to be unworthy of police and sheriffs’ attention.”

Jeff Auxier, the district attorney for Columbia County, Ore., said while it is “reasonable” for county sheriffs and local police to work with ICE when a criminal needs to be deported, he doesn’t see any need for county sheriffs or city cops to be checking whether an “otherwise law-abiding resident has the correct immigration papers.”

Bergin disagreed, arguing that while immigration-law violations are federal offenses they are “precursors to other crimes illegal immigrants routinely commit in their efforts to conceal their illegal presence.”

Erin McKee, co-director of the Oregon Justice Center’s Immigrants Rights Project, reacted to Bergin’s letter by saying it was “troubling that elected officials continue to perpetuate the myth of the criminal immigrant.”

McKee claimed studies show immigrants don’t commit crimes at any rate higher than native-born Americans. “Sheriff Bergin’s statement not only ignores facts and statistics,” McKee said in a statement, “but it also relies on tired, fear-mongering rhetoric that misleads the public on how the law works.”

Anyone who crosses the border illegally has committed a federal misdemeanor on the first offense. A second offense, committed by someone who has been deported and returns to the U.S. illegally, is a felony under federal law.

However, Umatilla County Sheriff Terry Rowan, who co-signed Bergin’s letter, said he wasn’t interested in arresting people just for crossing the border illegally.

“But what I am worried about are those who are here illegally and who commit local crimes,” said Rowan. “That is the population that we’re trying to get at.”

McKee pointed out that there is nothing in Oregon’s sanctuary state law that would stop sheriffs Rowan, Bergin, or any of their deputies from going after immigrants, legal or otherwise, who commit crimes.

Rowan admitted Umatilla County had not seen an increase in crime committed by illegal immigrants. But the more critical issue, he said, was “the rule of law.”

Just as Rowan pointed to what he saw as the more significant issue in the debate over Oregon’s sanctuary state law, McKee forecast Measure 105’s approval would lead to ICE arresting and deporting illegal immigrants who call the police for help.

But more important, in McKee’s opinion, was the nature of Bergin’s letter that was co-signed by half of Oregon’s elected sheriffs.

She said the letter “was nothing short of open hostility towards communities of color, immigrants and non-citizens.” McKee also urged Oregon voters to “reject such fear-based rhetoric and myths, and support policies grounded in facts, dignity and compassion.”

But Rowan said he’d spoken with leaders of several community groups, including Hispanic organizations, about the need to repeal the sanctuary state law. Rowan said he received resounding support from those he spoke with who understood that repealing Measure 105 wasn’t about targeting Latinos. The November ballot proposal, Rowan said and declared his audience agreed, was about freeing local law enforcement to work with federal authorities.

“If we can’t use every tool available to us,” Rowan added, “we’re just swimming upstream all the time.”

Rowan, Bergin, and others backing Measure 105 have their work cut out for them. A Hoffman Research Group of Portland September survey showed only 31 percent of Oregon voters supported Measure 105, while another 50 percent of voters are opposed.

The Hoffman poll shows Measure 105 is losing in all five of Oregon’s congressional districts and among all age groups, as well as among both men and women. Measure 105 hasn’t even generated much support among Republicans. Only 48 percent of GOP voters plan to cast a ballot in favor of the proposal, while another 29 percent are opposed and 24 percent undecided.

Cynthia Kendall of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, the group leading the Measure 105 campaign, told Oregon Public Broadcasting she didn’t believe the poll numbers because she had seen “overwhelming response” to the ballot proposition.

However, she also admitted, “The onus is on us to educate people.”

Good luck with that, said Andrea Williams, who is leading the “No On 105” campaign.

“What we do know,” Williams said, “is that an overwhelming number of Oregonians reject the idea of racial profiling.” And that, she said, is precisely why the state’s sanctuary law was enacted in 1987.