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Sanctuary law in the cross-hairs

Oregonians will decide Nov. 6 whether they want to remain a sanctuary state.

Ballot Measure 105, a statewide initiative, would strike an Oregon law that since 1987 has prevented local and state law enforcement agencies from arresting people suspected only of violating federal immigration law.

Supporters say the measure would untie local law enforcement’s hands, but opponents worry it’ll erode immigrant communities’ trust in local police, and lead to the profiling that sparked the law’s near-unanimous passage in the first place.

Oregonians for Immigration Reform, which backs the measure, argues that by striking Oregon Revised Statute 181A.820, local law enforcement agencies will be better able to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in detaining undocumented immigrants.

“In doing so, the law has effectively rendered Oregon a ‘sanctuary’ state for illegal aliens,” OFIR’s website claims.

Medford state Rep. Sal Esquivel was one of the three Republican representatives who filed the ballot measure’s proposal last spring, co-sponsoring it with Mike Nearman of Independence and Greg Barreto of Cove. Esquivel and Nearman had attempted to get the measure in the last election, but despite enough signatures the initiative didn’t clear the ballot title process in time.

Esquivel’s own father came to the U.S. under the 1942 Bracero program that provided a legal means to work in the country. The program ended in 1964, but Esquivel described it in earlier news reports as a useful way to bring people into the country on a temporary legal basis.

“It’s time that Oregon complies with federal law like it should have in the first place. If you want to become an American become an American. If you want to come here for economic advantages and do it illegally, then I don’t think you should belong here,” Esquivel told KVAL-TV.

Local law enforcement agencies, neutral on the ballot measure, question how much impact striking the law would have, because it’s not the only law on the books protecting undocumented immigrants, but it is the only law the ballot measure would impact.

“It doesn’t serve a purpose,” Jackson County Sheriff Nate Sickler said of Measure 105.

Sickler is among roughly half of Oregon sheriffs who have opted to neither support nor oppose the ballot measure 16 sheriffs have endorsed it, two have voiced opposition, and the remaining 18 have opted to stay out of the fray.

Sickler said that based on his understanding of the law, his agency wouldn’t make changes to its policies and procedures relating to patrol deputies and at the jail if voters passed Measure 105.

“Whatever happens to 105, it’s not going to change anything, as far as I’m aware,” Sickler said.

The sheriff’s office already cooperates with ICE in criminal matters and administers warrants signed by a judge. For example, Adrian Rivera-Espinosa of Medford, who was convicted of criminal re-entry of a removed alien earlier this week in U.S. District Court, has been held in the Jackson County Jail since September of last year months after his Jackson County Circuit Court criminal case closed.

The state law mandates that local police stay out of immigration matters classified as civil, rather than criminal.

Jim Ludwick, with the Salem-based Oregonians for Immigration Reform, an organization backing Measure 105, said he wants to see an end to cases such as that of Sergio Jose Martinez, who had been deported a dozen times before his prison sentence for sodomy and burglary counts last year.

A report in the Oregonian said that ICE had asked to be notified before Martinez was released from jail in December 2016. The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office said it followed Oregon law when it released Martinez after ICE tried to hold him on a civil detainer, which can’t be used in Oregon, rather than a criminal arrest warrant signed by a judge.

Ludwick expressed hope that Measure 105 would allow jails to communicate with ICE better.

“It’d allow them to do that without crossing the barrier of this sanctuary law,” Ludwick said.

Sickler said even if the measure passes, state and local law enforcement agencies would still be bound by a separate law signed by Gov. Kate Brown last year.

House Bill 3464, signed in 2017 and effective since the beginning of this year, set strict limits for passing information to ICE without a criminal warrant specifically protecting information such as an undocumented immigrant’s address, contact information or identities of known relatives.

Medford police Deputy Chief Brett Johnson, who commands the department’s support bureau, which includes a plainclothes Spanish-speaking cultural liaison, said the agency would review its policies and procedures if the ballot measure were to pass, but he said House Bill 3464 would limit the measure’s impact.

“There are other laws on the books that go to this same issue,” Johnson said.

Ludwick said he didn’t know that Measure 105 wouldn’t affect House Bill 3464, saying he thought the measure would oppose the entirety of the state’s sanctuary status.

“That’s the first time I’d ever heard that,” Ludwick said.

Sickler said he’ll wait for clear direction from the state before changing the way the sheriff’s office enforces the laws.

“Until there’s some rulings in the court, there’s going to be no changes,” Sickler said.

Eroding communication?

A more pressing concern for Sickler is that the measure could jeopardize relationships his deputies have sought to build with minority communities.

“Do we really want our minority communities thinking we’re just trying to enforce immigration on its own?” Sickler said.

John Almaguer, a Medford lawyer who handles family immigration cases, was more blunt.

“All of this troubles the Latino community, the immigrant community, and it should trouble the entire community,” Almaguer said about the ballot measure. “We’re taking something that’s worked, and we’re taking it away.

“It would make Oregon a much less safe place,” he said.

Almaguer said it’s taken the better part of a generation for immigrant communities to learn to trust that local police are focused on enforcing local laws on the books not whether their residency paperwork is in order.

The sanctuary laws have encouraged immigrants to report crimes to police without fear, Almaguer said.

“I can speak to 20 years of improvement,” he added. “I think 105 would erase a lot of that improvement.”

Almaguer said he witnessed a sea change from 1999 to today in how local police agencies have addressed minority communities.

Two decades ago, the perception in the Latino community was that “calling MPD was like calling INS,” according to Almaguer, partly because the agency drew from the former federal agency for translation services.

“I feel they’ve made great strides to make people feel comfortable reporting crimes,” Almaguer said. “It did take years. It’s not something that resolved itself immediately.”

Regardless of the election, Medford police will continue to reach out to the Latino community, Johnson said.

Ludwick disagreed that the measure would sever lines of communication with law enforcement, and said no one is advocating witnesses or good Samaritans be penalized for helping.

In a letter co-signed by 15 sheriffs largely in coastal and eastern Oregon counties, Clatsop County Sheriff Bergin said immigrants would still be able to report crimes through anonymous tip lines, and called the argument that officers would begin profiling as “nonsensical and insulting.”

Almaguer disagreed.

“Profiling is the reason this came into being,” he said.

How sanctuary started

When the bill passed the Legislature more than 31 years ago, it was far from controversial, according to state Legislature voting records.

A decade prior to Oregon’s sanctuary law, Polk County deputies had arrested a U.S. citizen named Delmiro Trevino without a warrant on suspicion he was in the country illegally, sparking a class-action lawsuit.

“They stopped the wrong guy,” Almaguer said. “They stopped a U.S. citizen and they embarrassed him in a restaurant.”

Trevino’s lawyer, Rocky Barilla, who became Oregon’s first Latino state representative in 1986, sponsored the bill, which passed with just one no vote in the House and one in the Senate. Republican Gov. Neil Goldschmidt signed it into law July 7, 1987.

“When this law passed it was very uncontroversial,” Almaguer said, describing the law partially as liability protection against Oregon law enforcement agencies and leaving immigration law to federal agents.

“It was seen as drawing those boundaries clear and distinct.”

If Measure 105 were to pass, Almaguer fears, the blanket law could erode into a patchwork, with some jurisdictions maintaining their community policing strides, and others potentially entering into official agreements with ICE.

Outside of Oregon, 1,514 state and local police officers with 78 agencies in 20 states are trained and certified to enforce immigration law through ICE’s 287(g) delegated authority program, according to the Department of Homeland Security website.

“That’s the federal government’s job,” Almaguer said. “Why are we so excited at the potential of doing someone else’s work for free?”

Ludwick said that in addition to opposing sanctuary laws, his organization wants stricter enforcement of borders, in tandem with making legal immigration opportunities available for roughly 230,000 people each year.

“We’re just advocating for laws being enforced at the federal level,” he said.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.