Hate group Oregonians for Immigration Reform (OFIR) spearheads campaign to overturn state’s sanctuary policy

Since May 2017, Oregonians for Immigration Reform (OFIR), an anti-immigrant hate group based in McMinnville, Oregon, has engaged in an effort to get a referendum on November’s ballot challenging Oregon’s decades-old sanctuary state law. 

Long a priority for the organized anti-immigrant movement, Donald Trump’s presidency has provided the power and momentum to attack “sanctuary cities” and states, communities that have generally declined to task local law enforcement with enforcing federal immigration laws. Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Trump administration filed a federal lawsuit against the state of California over its sanctuary law. The main legal arm of the anti-immigrant movement, the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI) is also pursuing suits against sanctuary cities while local anti-immigrant groups such as OFIR are also trying to overturn sanctuary polices via referendum.  

A repeal of the sanctuary law worries immigrant rights activists. “IP 22 would take us back to a time when racial profiling was rampant in Oregon.  When federal immigration agents would pressure local law enforcement into breaking down doors and dragging parents and their kids out of their homes,” Ramon Ramirez of PCUN, the largest Latino organization in Oregon, told Hatewatch.  

OFIR is looking to repeat its 2014 success when it led a campaign to overturn a law granting drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants. That effort succeeded with financial support from a white nationalist organization and logistical support from a national anti-immigrant hate group.  

A success in 2014 serves as a blueprint for 2018

At a May Day rally in 2013, Oregon’s governor John Kitzhaber signed into law a bill that granted driver’s licenses to undocumented Oregon residents. In response, OFIR filed to get the bill overturned via referendum and ran a successful signature drive, collecting more than the 58,000 signatures. Oregon voters ultimately decided to overturn the law by a 2 to 1 margin in the 2014 elections. OFIR wouldn’t have been successful without the support and intervention of a wide anti-immigration network.

OFIR’s 501(c)(4) arm and another PAC it helped establish, Protect Oregon Driver Licenses Committee (PODL), spearheaded the campaign. PODL received $3,500 in funding from another anti-immigrant hate group, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). FAIR was founded by white nationalist John Tanton and received crucial funding from the eugenics-promoting Pioneer Fund in its early years. According to a FAIR newsletter published in 2014, FAIR pledged that its field, state legislative and media teams would assist “[S]tate immigration reform activists in their efforts to educate Oregon voters about the issues and the dangers of granting driver's licenses to illegal aliens.”

OFIR also took donations from Paul Nachman, a Montana-based extremist who regularly writes for VDARE, an overtly racist blog that serves as a hub for white nationalists and antisemites. In recent posts for VDARE, Nachman questioned the existence of “moderate Muslims,” called refugees “good liars,”and repeatedly cited and praised the late and highly influential white nationalist writer Lawrence Auster

Nativist elected officials were also heavily involved in the campaign. Kim Thatcher, a state lawmaker was one of the “chief petitioners” for the referendum’s petition drive. In 2007, Thatcher joined State Legislators for Legal Immigration (SLLI), a coalition of nativist state legislators, who, with the aid of FAIR and IRLI introduced anti-immigrant legislation at the state level including copycat versions of Arizona’s SB 1070. That legislation was introduced by another SLLI member, Russell Pearce.  Pearce has repeatedly referred to undocumented immigrants as “invaders,” and made headlines in 2006 for circulatingan article written by the neo-Nazi group the National Alliance that contained racist and antisemitic material. 

A year before joining SLLI, Thatcher spoke at an OFIR event in Salem where she told the crowd, "Oregon has given cover to too many people wreaking havoc on our society." Another “chief petitioner” was Sal Esquivel, a longtime legislator who spoke at a National Immigration Policy Summit in Phoenix in 2010. The event featured a number of anti-immigrant groups including NumbersUSA and FAIR. In 2014, Esquivel joined FAIR on its annual border summit in El Paso, Texas. 

OFIR enlisted the help of Fred Elbel, of another anti-immigrant hate group Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform (CAIR-CO), to design “Protect Oregon Driver Licenses” website. 

The repeal of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants has had a long-lasting impact say activists “Repealing the driver’s cards caused great harm for immigrant families in Oregon, preventing some people from being able to drive to work and support their families,” said Andrea Williams of the Oregon-based immigrant rights group Causa.

“It’s important to remember these families come here seeking a better life just like European immigrants from the 1900s, who had far more opportunities to legally emigrate to this country. We need to work together to create a reasonable process that is fair, efficient and allows undocumented immigrants to meet eligibility criteria for authorized status.”

The latest campaign

OFIR is looking to the same network in its latest campaign. 

On May 1, 2017, OFIR announced its “Stop Oregon Sanctuary Cities” plan on its website. The group needs to gather 88,184 signatures by July 2018 to qualify for the ballot in November.

Elbel designed the “Stop Oregon Sanctuary Cities” website, while a committee similar to PODL was created called Repeal Oregon Sanctuary Law (ROSL). U.S. Inc., donated a further $3,000 to the effort, prompting The Oregonian to write a piece in August 2017 about the white nationalist group. OFIR’s leader, Cynthia Kendoll, declined to be interviewed for the story. To date, FAIR has donated over $60,000 to the campaign, with the most recent $30,000 coming in February. IRLI donated $5,000 to the campaign in October of 2017.

OFIR held a meeting in Salem on February 17 where its leadership discussed the campaign and material from hate groups was on display at the gathering. Copies of The Social Contract as well as two other booklets on immigration published by the white nationalist Social Contract Press were made available, along with material published by FAIR. OFIR leadership told attendees to target gun shows and DMV offices in order to recruit signatories. 

The day before the meeting, Steel Roots News reported that signature gatherers working for Ballot Access, LLC were lying to residents about what the referendum would do. According to the report, a college student recorded a signature gatherer depicting the referendum as an effort to protect Oregon’s sanctuary law. Additional complaints have been filed and the Secretary of State’s office has opened an investigation. The owner of Ballot Access, LLC is Lee Vasche, who serves as treasurer of OFIR’s PAC. Vasche spoke at the OFIR meeting on February 17, but did not mention the allegations leveled against his company during his speech. 

As previously documented by Hatewatch, OFIR and its leadership have maintained strong ties to anti-immigrant hate groups and white nationalists. The group is also clearly willing to accept financial and other support from these groups and figures to advance its campaign

“OFIR’s bigotry doesn’t represent Oregon,” David Rogers, of the ACLU of Oregon told Hatewatch.

“If not for the support OFIR receives from a range of national hate-groups, they would have much more limited ability to push their anti-immigrant agenda in the state. These out-of-state funders are more than happy to use Oregon as a testing ground for their divisive and harmful experiments.”