PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – For the group behind an anti-immigration measure on Oregon’s ballot this year, targeting sanctuary laws is just the beginning. Identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Oregonians for Immigration Reform has both a record of political success and deep ties to white nationalists.
Spokesman Jim Ludwick says the group is against illegal immigration and also wants to dramatically reduce legal immigration. Before sponsoring the effort to repeal Oregon’s sanctuary law, the group was behind a successful anti-immigrant measure in 2014. And Ludwick says the group has other plans.
Measure 105 would repeal Oregon’s state sanctuary law. A landmark when passed in 1987, the law prohibits state and local authorities from using public resources to arrest people whose sole crime is being in the United States without documents. Major businesses and political organizations have lined up against the measure including Nike, Columbia Sportswear, ACLU of Oregon, Audubon and the University of Oregon.
Other opponents include those who work closely with immigrants in Oregon like Reyna Lopez, executive director of the Woodburn-based farmworkers’ union Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN).
“This issue is really personal to me,” Lopez said. “Even though I am a citizen I have been racially profiled. People sometimes assume I’m undocumented because of my facial features. I’m very concerned for myself and the safety of my family.”
Lopez said her parents and others in their generation remember a time before Oregon’s sanctuary law, when local police would point out houses where immigrants were living to federal immigration agents.
“They didn’t care who was a citizen and who wasn’t,” Lopez said. “I’ve heard stories of roadblocks, where if you were a person who was light-skinned, they would let you pass. If you were dark-skinned they would make you step aside. These are not stories I made up. These are the stories of people who are involved in PCUN who watched this and remember it.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has listed Oregonians for Immigration Reform as a hate group for over a decade, in part based on its ties to known white nationalist organizations like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the flagship group founded in the late 1970s by white nationalist John Tanton.
Tanton’s group helped launch Oregonians for Immigration Reform in 2000. It’s also the single largest contributor to the Measure 105 campaign.
In the mid-1990s, Oregonians for Immigration Reform joined the Oregon chapter of the nativist extremist militia group known as the Minutemen to protest outside of day labor camps across Oregon. The group maintains close ties to Minutemen leadership and other white nationalist leaders.
And this is not the group’s first ballot measure.
In 2014, Oregonians for Immigration Reform got a measure on the ballot to test a new Oregon law that would have issued Oregon identification cards to immigrants. Oregonians came out in droves against the law, with 66 percent voting to toss it.
Afterward, the group’s current president Cynthia Kendoll used white nationalist rhetoric to justify the measure in an interview with Willamette Week.
“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.”
Since then, the group has continued to trumpet the white nationalist agenda.
In a 2017 letter to the Portland Tribune, Oregonians for Immigration Reform vice president Richard LaMountain called on voters to reject a bond measure for Portland Community College because the school held an event delving into the meaning of white privilege. In his letter, LaMountain parroted white nationalist talking points.
“Over the past half-century, American governments, colleges and businesses have instituted aggressive ‘diversity,’ affirmative action and minority set-aside policies,” LaMountain wrote. “These give citizens and even non-citizens of color preferences for educations, jobs and promotions over the very citizens PCC alleged are ‘privileged’ by ‘whiteness.’”
In an interview with the group’s spokesman Ludwick in October, nothing about the group’s rhetoric had changed.
“At some point in time you end up losing some of the freedoms you have when there are too many people in a geographic area,” Ludwick said by phone.
He suggested the group’s next target might be policies giving college tuition breaks and scholarships to immigrants, claiming they force citizens into unfair competition with immigrants.
And he disputed the argument put forth by opponents of Measure 105 that abolishing Oregon’s sanctuary status will make immigrants scared of police and reluctant to report crime. Ludwick said such reluctance is one more reason why he wants far fewer immigrants living in Oregon.
“Why would you want to have people in your community who would do that?” he asked. “Would you want a neighbor who could see someone breaking into your house and wouldn’t call the police? I don’t want them in my community if they are afraid of the police.”
Ludwick also pushed back against criticism of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who last year tried to arrest an immigrant at a hearing inside the Multnomah County Courthouse.
“Where is the safest place to make an arrest?” Ludwick asked. “Isn’t it in the confined controlled environment of a courthouse rather than out in some back alley?”
There were more state laws introduced in 2017 to regulate immigration than in 2018, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Even so, sanctuary laws – either for or against – are one of the main trends identified by the group in legislative activity around the country this year.
California passed a law prohibiting state agencies from contracting with the federal government to house immigration detainees. On the other side of the coin, Iowa mandated state compliance with federal immigration requests and Tennessee barred state and local authorities from adopting sanctuary policies.
Getting state laws passed is an area where groups like Oregonians for Immigration Reform excel according to Ann Morse, program director of the Immigrant Policy Project at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“Advocacy groups can be very effective at the state level,” Ann Morse said. “They push it until it works and when it stops working, they walk away.”
The 2014 ballot measure passed in every Oregon county except Multnomah, where Portland is the county seat. Voters in Portland don’t appear likely to support the group’s current effort either.
Jeremy Knott, a 23-year-old Portland resident, says he won’t vote for the measure.
“No way, dude,” Knott said while waiting for his city bus. “All this anti-immigration stuff that’s going on, it’s just racist.”
Celia Voit, a 63-year-old retired nurse, was sitting on a bench nearby. She nodded her head in agreement when Knott was speaking.
“It’s a real shame, the way they’re targeting people,” Voit said. “It’s not how we’re supposed to be treating people. I just hope it stops.”
But outside the state’s most populous city, there are signs of support for Measure 105: In August, 16 county sheriffs signed a letter of support for the measure.
And a DHM Research poll of 500 respondents conducted in early October shows how polarizing the issue is for Oregonians. While 32 percent support the measure and 45 said they’re opposed, a whopping 23 percent were undecided.
Ludwick said his group is optimistic about election night.
“Based on our conversations with normal folks, we expect that we will win,” Ludwick said. “So much of this midterm vote is the immigration issues that are out front and center. What we do by having a sanctuary policy is we create an environment where criminal aliens get special benefits over American citizens. We would rather have a vote on whether being an American citizen should give you special rights and that’s what we hope it will be about.”
Lopez, with the farmworkers’ union, said the measure would reveal the identity Oregonians want their state to have.
“This fight isn’t about the broken immigration system at the national level,” Lopez said. “It’s really about who Oregon wants to be. And I don’t think we should let a hate group tell us where to go in our country.”