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GOP lawmakers target Oregon sanctuary laws, hoping to capitalize on immigration concerns

State Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, left, and Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, will attempt to roll back Oregon's sanctuary laws next year.

State Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, left, and Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, will attempt to roll back Oregon’s sanctuary laws next year.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

A pair of Republican lawmakers say they’ll attempt to roll back some of Oregon’s sanctuary protections next year, as the party signals it will highlight border security in this year’s election.

In a memo circulated earlier this week, state Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, and Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, wrote to Republican colleagues that Oregon has been “significantly impacted” by a surge of illegal entries at the nation’s southern border, “particularly through the influx of fentanyl and other illicit drugs…”

The solution, Knopp and Breese-Iverson say, is to make it easier for local law enforcement agencies and other Oregon public officials to collaborate with federal authorities to enforce immigration law.

The pair plans to introduce a longshot bill during next year’s session rolling back the so-called Sanctuary Promise Act. Passed in 2021 by Democrats who still hold majorities in both chambers, the law strengthened Oregon’s decades-old sanctuary protections, creating explicit prohibitions on local officials aiding federal immigration authorities.

“We are committed to bringing a repeal of the Sanctuary Promise Act in the 2025 legislative session,” the memo says. “Additionally, we believe it is essential to continue discussing and developing solutions that may go further to fully address this border crisis effectively.”

Related: Oregon’s sanctuary law will be stronger than ever under newly passed bill

The memo is the latest sign that GOP lawmakers see the problems brought by an onrush of migrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border as a winning political issue this fall. It comes as President Joe Biden this week took executive action to blunt criticisms his administration has been too soft on the issue.

Earlier this spring, a group of 16 Republicans — both sitting lawmakers and legislative candidates hoping to become lawmakers — traveled to Arizona in order to get a first-hand look at the state’s struggles with immigration. Such border pilgrimages have become common among Republicans around the country looking to knock Democrats’ stance on an issue that has risen to the top of voter concerns.

The strategy is not unique to one party. Oregon U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley traveled to the border in 2018 to highlight a policy by then-President Donald Trump that was separating migrant families.

Knopp and Breese-Iverson spearheaded the Arizona trip, and addressed their memo to those who attended. It included a rundown of other laws that Oregon lawmakers have passed in recent years, including millions set aside for grants to refugee resettlement agencies, and a bill that created a new state office to support immigrants and refugees.

“During our Arizona trip earlier this year, we repeatedly heard that ‘every state is a border state,’” the lawmakers wrote. “This has become increasingly relevant as the Biden administration appears to be taking executive action on the border this week. It is clear we must address the ongoing border crisis.”

Related: Oregon Republicans to visit Arizona-Mexico border to learn about security issues

National polling suggests that immigration is a major concern for Americans — especially Republicans and nonaffiliated voters, who are key for GOP hopes to winning more power in the Beaver State.

Worries over how voter unease on the issue would play at the ballot box this year helped prompt Biden to issue an executive order earlier this week, making it more difficult for migrants to seek asylum in the U.S. at a time law enforcement officers are encountering thousands of migrants at the border every day.

While Republicans are not expected to retake either chamber of the Legislature in this year’s elections, the party is hopeful it can win back ground — particularly in the House, where Democrats hold a 35-25 majority. Republicans are also hoping to win at least one of three statewide offices that are up for grabs. Three of the state’s six congressional races — two with Democratic incumbents — are potentially competitive this year, as well.

But whether immigration is at the forefront of Oregonians’ minds right now is unclear.

Polling by Portland firm DHM research in April 2023 suggested that roughly half of Oregon voters think illegal immigration is a serious problem. But a majority of voters said at the time they supported Oregon keeping its status as a sanctuary state, and nearly 60% said immigration was a positive thing for the country.

As of last August, the issue hadn’t surfaced as a major concern for many Oregonians, said John Horvick, DHM’s senior vice president. Just 1% said in a survey that immigration is the most important problem facing the state.

“That doesn’t mean that Oregonians don’t care, but it’s not nearly as top of mind as a state issue compared to things like homelessness, drugs, and crime,” Horvick said.

Oregon voters trounced a 2018 ballot measure that would have rolled back the state’s sanctuary protections as they existed at that time, prior to the legislature beefing up the law in 2021.

Related: Oregonians Vote To Keep State’s Sanctuary Law, Reject Measure 105

Any attempt to rollback sanctuary protections appears likely to meet a similar fate in the Legislature. The law Republicans hope to target had near-unanimous support from majority Democrats. Its sponsors included now-House Speaker Julie Fahey, D-Eugene.

Fahey did not respond to a request for comment about the GOP memo, and a number of other sponsors of the 2021 bill couldn’t be reached. Latino Network, a nonprofit that was a key backer of HB 3265, said it didn’t have immediate comment.

Knopp will no longer be a member of the Senate next year. He is barred from running for reelection after participating in a six-week walkout during the 2023 session. Knopp’s office said the lawmaker could still file a bill for next year prior to leaving office in January.

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