DACA recipients protest at the Capitol in August. (Paris Achen/Portland Tribune)
Knute Buehler, Republican nominee for governor, has staked inconsistent positions on immigration, a review of his public record establishes.
The Republican legislator from Bend has voted against state legislation that protects immigrants but supported tighter controls over racial profiling. His voting record shows a conservative approach toward expanding state benefits such as health coverage to children brought to the country illegally.
His immigration stance is squarely in the spotlight with his support of a state measure to repeal the state’s 31-year-old sanctuary law, which bars local police from helping enforce federal immigration policy.
And it puts him at odds with Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, who supports the sanctuary law.
Three Republican legislators and Oregonians for Immigration Reform petitioned for Measure 105, arguing that too many state resources are used to support undocumented immigrants at the expense of citizens. They also assert that immigrants who come to the country illegally often violate the law, such as acquiring a fraudulent identity or driving uninsured.
“I’ll be voting for Measure 105,” Buehler said in a Sept. 20 interview with the Pamplin Media Group. “I’m not campaigning for it. It’s not a central part of my gubernatorial campaign.”
Yet, Bueler said he opposes the racial profiling that the sanctuary law was designed to prevent.
“We need to assure people that racial profiling is not going to ever be tolerated in Oregon.”
He argued that Oregon’s sanctuary law is no longer necessary because the 2015 legislation which he supported explicitly prohibited profiling.
The law requires police agencies to enact practices prohibiting profiling, defined as stopping someone based on characteristics such as their race, ethnicity, color, national origin, language or religion.
“I think the original intention of the sanctuary city legislation has been really updated and taken care of with that (2015) legislation,” Buehler said.
He argued the sanctuary law should be repealed because it confuses police, judges and district attorneys about when they can cooperate with federal authorities.
Without providing evidence, Buehler said that the law is applied inconsistently throughout the state.
But the 16 sheriffs endorsing repeal of the sanctuary law in a joint letter two months ago didn’t state any concern that the law is applied inconsistently.
“The statute undermines respect for law in significant ways,” wrote Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin, the letter’s lead author. “It tells illegal immigrants that Oregon considers immigration-law violations so inconsequential as to be unworthy of police and sheriffs’ attention. In doing so, it legitimizes those violations and encourages more.”
For instance, some immigrants commit identity theft “to conceal their illegal presence,” he wrote.
Buehler “says he is going to vote for Ballot Measure 105, but then as governor, he nonetheless will follow the basic tenets of the sanctuary law? That’s inconsistent on his part,” said Rick LaMountain, a member of Oregonians for Immigration Reform and chief sponsor of a successful 2014 referendum to deny driver cards to undocumented immigrants.
“The more he addresses (Measure 105) the more he confuses me and probably a lot of other people,” LaMountain said.
After winning the Republican primary, Buehler announced his support for Measure 105 in a July interview with radio host Lars Larson.
Then, in an early September interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting, Buehler said he supports the tenets of the sanctuary law but wants it repealed.
Those on both sides of the issue took note of Buehler’s equivocation.
“I think he is probably trying to have it both ways,” LaMountain said. “He got a lot of pushback when he came out on Measure 105 and now is trying to backtrack on that.”
Sushma Raghavan, field director at Unite Oregon - a pro-immigrant advocacy organization that helped draft the state’s profiling legislation – agreed that Buehler “is trying to say whatever he can to get elected.”
“Immigrant rights are under attack, and we need to make sure our leadership is protecting all Oregonians regardless of their background,” said Kayse Jama, executive director of Unite Oregon. “This is not the right time to repeal this law.”
Monica Wroblewski, spokeswoman for Buehler’s campaign, said Tuesday that his position “has been consistent from the beginning.”
“Clearly, Knute’s reasons for supporting the measure are not the same as those that wrote the letter,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that his concerns about the inconsistent application of the current law are not valid.”
The state sanctuary law outlines when local authorities can cooperate with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Police may share information to verify the immigration status and the criminal background of someone they’ve arrested or to arrest a suspect for whom a federal criminal warrant has been issued.
Some law enforcement officials, including Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese and Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel, oppose Measure 105.
Oregon’s law allows police to “appropriately share information with our federal partners” when an immigrant commits a felony or serious misdemeanor crime, Reese said in July.
“It keeps our local police focused on solving crimes by letting victims and witnesses know that they can report crime to us without fear of their immigration status,” he said.
Buehler said he opposes using local police for “routine federal immigration activities, meaning that if you are a victim or a witness of a crime you should feel safe approaching law enforcement, especially if you are undocumented, and be assured that that information is not going to be shared or be used in any way to enforce federal immigration policy.”
Between 2015 and 2018, Buehler opposed a series of pro-immigrant legislation that nonetheless passed the Oregon Legislature.
In 2015, he opposed expanding financial aid, called the Oregon Opportunity Grant, to Oregon graduates who were unable to prove legal U.S. residency.
In 2017, he opposed legislation that prohibited state employees from asking about immigration status or disclosing that information to other government authorities without a court order or warrant.
Buehler also opposed a bill to reduce from felonies to misdemeanors crimes for possessing personal use amounts of six drugs. The legislation was driven by findings that Oregon blacks were disproportionately convicted of drug felonies for having small amounts. Last month, a state report found the law was working and that there was a decreased disproportionality in drug convictions between black and white Oregonians.
He opposed legislation that provides Oregon Health Plan benefits to children brought to the country illegally.
Earlier this year, he opposed legislation allowing those whose participation as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals had expired to nonetheless renew or replace their driver’s license.
Brown, meantime, has moved to fortify Oregon’s sanctuary status in response to immigration policies proposed by the Trump administration.
In early 2017, she issued an executive order to prohibit state employees from participating in a Muslim registry, an idea Trump floated but never advanced.
Under her administration, the state has sued the federal government several times over immigration policies. Lawsuits have challenged the Trump administration for separating families that enter the country illegally, the elimination of the executive order creating Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that made it easier for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children to stay in the country and the travel ban for visitors from certain countries.
The U.S. Supreme Court in June upheld Trump’s travel ban.
The family separation and DACA cases are still pending, but Oregon and other states won a preliminary injunction in February leaving the program in place.
Brown has not specifically addressed Buehler’s stance on immigration issues.
Her supporters, however, have accused Buehler of aligning with what they say is a hate group, Oregonians for Immigration Reform.
“This is not the behavior of a candidate who shares Oregonians’ values,” said Jeanne Atkins, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Oregon, in a statement Sept. 11. “These dog whistle politics show voters just how far to the right Buehler is willing to go to appease his Republican base.”
Paris Achen: [email protected] or 503-363-0888. Achen is a reporter for the Portland Tribune working for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group and Salem Reporter. Malheur Enterprise editor Les Zaitz manages the capital operation.