In 1987, ORS 181A.820 was passed as a non-controversial law with bipartisan support. All but one legislator voted in favor.
This law, popularly called today Oregon’s sanctuary law, was Oregon legislators’ response to racial profiling by police during the 1970s. According to the Polk County Itemizer-Observer, “In one high-profile case in 1977, Delmiro Trevino, a U.S. citizen of Mexican descent, was arrested at a restaurant in Independence because police suspected that he was undocumented. He later filed a class action suit. His lawyer, Rocky Barilla, won election as a state representative in 1986. He introduced the legislation that enacted the sanctuary law.”
Thirty years later, the conversations many people are having on Measure 105, which seeks to repeal this law, do not acknowledge this particular history of racial profiling due to perceived immigration status. In a recent conversation that I had with a man on the measure, he responded, “I have never heard of racial profiling as being part of the reason why this law exists.” However, the public record serves as testament to this. This is one of the reasons why various district attorneys support preserving the law. Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel summarized it best: “This law [ORS 181A.820] has worked well for 30 years, holding people who commit crimes accountable, while also protecting civil rights ...”
Aside from the issue of racial profiling, however, I think we Oregonians need to have honest conversations about immigration. While many of the conversations currently center on crimes committed by undocumented people, despite the fact that research shows immigrants commit less crime than U.S. citizens; the taking of jobs, even though many of the jobs held by undocumented people are ones Americans generally do not want; and the drain of undocumented people on the system, even though undocumented people are not eligible for welfare; we have not had a conversation about the benefits Oregonians derive from having undocumented labor.
Some of the benefits I see around me are the lower prices we all pay for both prepared food in restaurants and food in the produce aisle. Other benefits are keeping various economies afloat such as agri-business, which relies, whether we like it or not, on undocumented labor.
The tourist economy in Southern Oregon also relies on undocumented labor in the form of housekeepers, groundskeepers, cooks, busboys and dishwashers. In memory care and assisted living facilities, our parents, sisters and spouses are being taken care of, sometimes, by undocumented caretakers.
This summer, Southern Oregon and Northern California experienced horrible fires. Some of those firefighters were also undocumented people. Many of us like living in Oregon because of the beautiful landscape. Some of the folks involved in reforestation are undocumented people.
For me, preserving people’s civil rights is paramount, so in November, I will vote no on Measure 105. However, I want to acknowledge that the common Oregonian, myself included, has benefited in some way or another by the labor undocumented people perform daily, the labor most of us find too difficult, dirty and dangerous to perform. The virulent attacks on immigrants, as espoused by proponents of Measure 105, are dishonest and ungrateful.
Alma Rosa Alvarez is a professor of English literature at Southern Oregon University and a co-founder of the Racial Equity Coalition.