Democrats and Republicans in bluer-than-blue Oregon strongly backed a referendum on Election Day to eliminate a 2013 law that would have provided drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants.
The small band of Republican politicians and activists who put the referendum on the ballot say national Republican politicians should learn that the broad public will support them if they oppose amnesty.
On Nov. 4, 66 percent of the state’s voters backed the referendum and eliminated the illegals’ licenses.
Those 908,682 voters included many Democrats who also reelected the state’s Democratic establishment, led by Gov. John Kitzhaber and Sen. Jeff Merkley.
“It is only at the state legislature and at Congress that [illegal immigration] becomes a partisan issue,” said state Rep. Kim Thatcher, who sponsored the referendum, dubbed Measure 88.
“In real life, people appreciate the importance of the laws, and they appreciate people who come here legally and they don’t want to support people who come here illegally,” she told The Daily Caller.
“People would come up and say to me, ‘I am a lifelong liberal, but this is going too far. Please let me sign your petition,'” said Cynthia Kendoll, the president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform.
“They were adamant that people who are in our country have gotten way too much and that we’ve got to fix this problem,” she told TheDC.
Since it was first publicized in late 2013, the referendum “polled two-to-one from day one. … That needle didn’t move at all,” said GOP state Rep. Sal Esquivel. “People are pretty much set … and they want to see their federal government go ahead and take care of the situation instead of moving their lips and doing nothing.”
“Doggone it, a lot of Democrats feel the same way as Republicans,” Esquivel said.
Measure 88 also helped GOP candidates who championed it, said Esquivel. “People who campaigned on this issue did quite well, an the ones that did not, didn’t do very well.”
The GOP gubernatorial candidate ignored the issue, and lost his race, 600,300 votes to Kitzhaber’s 668,816 votes.
But Rep. Thatcher, a Measure 88 sponsor, won a seat in the state Senate, even though GOP turnout sagged, and the state’s voters increased the Democratic advantage in the Senate from 16:14 to 18:12.
The referendum was also championed by Bill Post, a conservative talk-show host who was elected to take Thatcher’s seat in the state House.
During his campaign, Post won support from the major trade association that backed the award of drivers’ licenses to illegals, the Oregon Association of Nurseries. The association’s member companies use many migrants to plant and trim trees.
In a meeting with the association’s members, “I said ‘No, it’s really simple, you can’t break the law’ … [and] they endorsed me and gave me money,” Post told TheDC. “On 99 percent of the issues, they and I see eye-to-eye,” Post said.
Other employers are investing in machinery instead of relying on migrant workers. For example, the state’s growing wine industry had designed its vineyards so that grapes can be harvested by machines instead of migrants.
Measure 88 was so popular that the organizers won with a budget of only $50,000 for the campaign. The group spent only 18 cents per vote to win 35 of 36 counties in the state.
In contrast, Kentucky GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell and his supporters paid 278 times as much, at $50 per vote.
The Oregon activists were actually outspent roughly five-to-one by pro-license group, Yes on Oregon Safe Roads.
The pro-license group was funded by the state’s Latino lobbies and immigration lawyers, by Hollywood liberals, and by progressive unions, churches and legal groups. It was also backed by landscaping and agricultural companies who prefer to hire cheap migrant labor instead of investing in machinery. These groups supported the Democrat-drafted 2013 license law because it incentivized more illegals to work and live in the state.
But the business and progressive groups only won the license ballot in a single district, Portland, by a narrow 55-to-45 split.
“Moscow on the Willamette is very liberal, very left wing. … We didn’t even campaign there,” said spokesman Jim Ludwick, communications director at Oregonians for Immigration Reform.
The referendum’s backers tried to avoid any hint of ethnic tension or anti-immigrant attitudes in their campaign.
Instead, they focused their criticism on the unfairness of the 2013 law’s lax treatment of illegal drivers, and the unfairness of the state’s support for companies’ use of low-wage migrant labor.
“Nobody want to break up families, nobody want to be the meanie, but we do need to make sure that the people coming to the U.S. contribute and become part of the positive fabric,” said Thatcher, who owns a road construction firm.
“We try to talk about [immigration] in the general sense, because if you get down to specific individuals … you go down a slippery slope, you start denigrating groups based on a few,” Ludwig said.
Many voters were repelled by the 2013 law’s easy treatment of illegals, said Ludwick.
Oregonians must periodically prove their identity with passports and birth certificates as they renew their licenses, but illegals would have been able to get a license by showing an unverifiable “Matrícula Consular” identification document that they can buy from Mexican government officials in Oregon.
That sense of unfairness was also a proxy issue for a feared loss of control, said Ludwick. There’s no guarantee that the Mexican ID cards would show the person’s true name, so the process could be gamed by criminals to conceal their identity behind real Oregon licenses said, he said.
“Our sovereignty would be in the hands of the Mexican counsel general’s office,” he said. “They would be the adjudicator of who could stay in the country.”
Voters were also concerned about the impact of illegals on jobs, said Ludwick.
“When we talked about jobs we simply said this — wages are flat, there’s been no increase in wages, millions of Americans are out work and millions are underemployed,” Ludwick said.
People understand that “if you have an oversupply of labor, wages are going to be suppressed,” he said.
“Our economy is in mess, we don’t have jobs” outside Portland, said Post.
People don’t want to blame immigration or immigrants for the problems, but they would talk around the issue of immigration’s impact on jobs, Ludwick said. For example, one woman whom he said she would support the referendum because her two sons couldn’t find good jobs. “One is living at home, and one is sharing an apartment, trying to get on as a substitute teacher, the [first] one went back to school because he can’t get a job in his field,” Ludwick said.
But those fairness and jobs issues, however true, important and civic-minded, were also proxy issues for the public’s deeper concerns about the impact of large-scale immigration on their communities, Ludwick said.
“One of the biggest things that’s not really addressed is that the U.S. is so welcoming, and we just keep giving and giving, and we keep including so many people at great cost to us, our society, to our pocket book, to our unemployment,” said Kendoll.
“We’re getting to that tipping point. … People are saying ‘Wait a minute, this is just too much,'” she said.
“It’s the numbers,” Ludwick said, citing the annual arrival of one million legal immigrants, 650,000 guest-workers and many illegal immigrants, who seek jobs sought by the four million Americans who enter the workforce each year.
“It is not that every migrant is bad. … It is that we can’t accommodate all the world’s poor and underprivileged,” he said.
Despite their huge victory in blue Oregon, the Oregon GOP members and activists haven’t gotten any calls from the national GOP apparatus.
“Not a single solitary one,” said Kendoll.
TheDC asked for a comment from Rep. Greg Walden, the sole Republican House member in Oregon, and the chairman of the committee panel that helps GOP legislators win elections.
“Greg opposes amnesty, voted against the drivers’ license referendum, and was glad to see it defeated overwhelmingly,” said a statement from Walden’s press aide, Andrew Malcolm. “In his many town halls and other meetings in Oregon, Greg has heard strong support for securing the border and fixing our broken immigration system,” Malcolm said.
Many Oregon employers hire foreign college grads in place of Americans.
The lesson from Oregon’s referendum is that Washington politicians “should stand up, and yes it would help [the Oregon GOP] because people will start to recognize that the Republicans actually can provide leadership,” said Thatcher.
“If they could stand up, they could pull a lot of people from all parties to recognize at least that part of the GOP as a positive thing, and say, may be the Republicans have backbone after all.”
By pushing his amnesty plan, Obama isn’t learning the lessons that voters are teaching, said Esquivel. “It seems like he would have learned from the last election, but obviously he didn’t. … He keeps taking a meat cleaver and putting it into his forehead to see if it hurts.”
GOP leaders should “wake up, the people are upset right now,” said Post.
“We have to secure the borders and we have to deal with this immigration issue,” he said. “Right now, the wind is at their back. The Nov. 4 election, it was a red wave.”