SALEM — Oregon lawmakers are considering a change to sentencing law that could help prevent the mandatory federal deportation of legal immigrants convicted of gross misdemeanors.
The proposal is in an amendment to Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum's bill to discourage racial profiling.
The change would reduce the maximum sentence for a Class A misdemeanor from 365 days to 364 days. A 365-day sentence is one of several triggers for mandatory federal deportation of green card holders, refugees and other legal noncitizens. Other triggers are violent crimes and felonies, said Stephen Manning, a Portland immigration attorney.
The change would have no effect on illegal immigrants.
"This is an equity issue," said House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland. "People should not be torn from their families and their communities because of an arbitrary difference between state and federal sentencing law for low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors."
If adopted, the law would make Oregon uniform with Washington and California, which already made the change in the last several years.
It would serve to strengthen the three states' governors' efforts to create "a zone of inclusivity" along the West Coast, Manning said.
Gov. Kate Brown has been defiant in the face of President Donald Trump's executive orders limiting immigration and banning refugees, which also have been halted by the courts.
In February, Brown issued her own executive orders barring the use of state resources to enforce federal immigration policy. Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum subsequently sought to join Washington's lawsuit against the Trump administration's immigration orders.
"Governor Brown supports the amendment and looks forward to signing the racial profiling bill into law to better protect all Oregonians," said Press Secretary Bryan Hockaday.
House Speaker Kotek requested the sentencing change to be added to an amendment to a bill that requires police to collect data on race when they pull over drivers or pedestrians. The bill is meant to discourage racial profiling by law enforcement.
Kotek made the request after receiving feedback from community groups, law enforcement, immigration attorneys and others working on the racial profiling bill, said Lindsey O'Brien, a spokeswoman in the Speaker's Office.
Felonies, certain violent crimes and 365-day or greater sentences for gross misdemeanors can trigger mandatory deportation under federal law. Class A misdemeanors in Oregon can range from falsifying information and writing a bad check to fourth-degree assault.
"Shifting to 364 days means our fellow Oregonians are not subject to that very drastic penalty," Manning said.
As an immigration attorney, Manning said he sees legal immigrants deported for misdemeanor crimes all of the time.
"I couldn't even count for you how many times," he said. "It's extremely painful and sad…and is a form of stigmatization against noncitizens."
The House Judiciary Committee adopted the amendment and approved the overarching bill March 30. No one addressed the significance of the sentencing change at that time.
Reps. Sal Esquivel of Medford, and Mike Nearman of Independence said they oppose the change because they see it as an attempt to circumvent federal law.
"To me that is a way to dodge the federal law," said Esquivel, who is the son of a legal Mexican immigrant. "You're on probation when you come here on a green card."
The two Republican lawmakers co-sponsored legislation this session to outlaw "sanctuary city' designation and to make English the state's official language.
Several Oregon cities, including Portland, have declared themselves sanctuary cities for immigrants, and the Trump administration has threatened to pull federal grants and other funding from those jurisdictions.
The bill is now before the Joint Committee on Ways and Means but won't have another hearing until May, said Rep. Duane Stark, R-Grants Pass, chairman of the Subcommittee on Public Safety.