Delmiro Trevino, a U.S. citizen born in Texas, was waiting for a meal in a restaurant in Independence, Oregon, in 1977 when three sheriff’s deputies and a policewoman demanded he show documents proving he was an American.
“I was ashamed. It wasn’t right, what they were doing,” Trevino, now 67 with gray hair, said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.
The incident of racial profiling led to Oregon becoming America’s first sanctuary state. But now, Oregonians are deciding in the Nov. 6 election whether to repeal the law, even as some other states, such as Vermont, have adopted sanctuary policies and others, like Texas, have banned towns from approving them.
Measure 105 in Oregon has become the most contentious ballot measure facing voters in the mostly Democratic state.
Rep. Sal Esquivel, one of three Republican state lawmakers who sponsored Measure 105, said states should help enforce federal law.
“Our nation cannot remain sovereign without laws that regulate which foreign nationals come here, when, and in what numbers,” Esquivel wrote in the voters’ pamphlet.
But among people of color — U.S. citizens and people in the country illegally — it has triggered memories of times when immigration roundups were common and raised fears that they’ll be stopped by police.
The measure has split law enforcement.
Sheriff Thomas Bergin of Clatsop County, along Oregon’s northern coast, said in a public letter that the sanctuary law “tells illegal immigrants that Oregon considers immigration law violations so inconsequential as to be unworthy of police and sheriffs’ attention.”
Fifteen sheriffs added their names to the letter. Twenty did not.
Law enforcement officers who oppose the repeal effort, such as Sheriff Pat Garrett of Washington County near Portland, said they need to direct their resources elsewhere instead of going after migrants, and that erasing the sanctuary law would make migrants afraid to report crimes when they’re victims or witnesses.
“Throwing out the law would open the door to racial profiling, and would degrade community trust in law enforcement,” state Rep. Diego Hernandez, a Portland Democrat, said in an email.
Latinos remember what it was like before the sanctuary law went on the books.
“The culture in the mid-20th century was, ‘You can work here, but don’t start … going to our churches,'” said Rocky Barilla, the first Latino elected to the Oregon Legislature. “Police were knocking on doors of apartment buildings. They set up roadblocks on Highway 99 and stopped people, especially if they were brown or Latino.”
One winter night in 1977, three Polk County deputies and an Independence policewoman went into the Hi-Ho restaurant in the picturesque riverside city and confronted Trevino. Born in Weslaco, Texas, the soft-spoken Trevino had moved to Oregon with his family as a boy. He worked in a plywood mill.
One of the deputies grabbed Trevino by the arm, forcing him to stand as customers looked on. Like most Americans, Trevino didn’t routinely carry a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship.
“They asked me if I am an American, and asked me if I had a passport,” Trevino recalled.
The officers, acting on behalf of federal immigration agents, let him go after the policewoman said she recognized Trevino as a long-term local. Still, a deputy accosted him later.
Trevino was so bothered that he and his wife Oralia went to a legal aid group. There, they found Barilla, who suggested Trevino sue the law officers and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Trevino felt queasy about taking that step.
“I told my wife, I have to be strong because of what I was going to do, because this was the government. It’s not a game,” Barilla remembered while sitting in his house in Independence on a recent afternoon.
The lawsuit was settled in federal court in 1978, with the immigration service saying it would not encourage local law enforcement to make arrests on immigration violations, Barilla said.
Still, raids persisted in the state. In the 1980s, Barilla was elected to the Legislature, with the Trevino case strong on his mind. It prompted the Democratic representative to write the sanctuary state bill, which passed with bipartisan support in 1987.
“I worked with Republicans, who wanted a stable labor force,” Barilla said in a telephone interview from Belmont, California, where he now lives. “The left saw it as an end to racial profiling. Law enforcement saw it as controlling their own goals and funds.”
Barilla said Trevino played a key role in the issue.
“He’s the real Rosa Parks of the Oregon sanctuary movement,” Barilla said, comparing him to the African-American civil rights icon who refused to sit in the back of a bus in Alabama. “He said ‘No mas, ya basta,’ meaning ‘no more, enough.'”
“He used a couple other colorful words,” Barilla added with a laugh.