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

FILE - A family of five claiming to be from Guatemala and a man stating he was from Peru, in pink shirt, walk through the desert after crossing the border wall in the Tucson Sector of the U.S.-Mexico border, Aug. 29, 2023, in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument near Lukeville, Ariz.
Matt York
AP Photo
FILE - A family of five claiming to be from Guatemala and a man stating he was from Peru, in pink shirt, walk through the desert after crossing the border wall in the Tucson Sector of the U.S.-Mexico border, Aug. 29, 2023, in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument near Lukeville, Ariz.

Sixteen Republican lawmakers and legislative candidates from Oregon plan to visit the Arizona-Mexico border on Monday, arguing that lax security around the southern border exacerbates the drug crisis in Oregon, 1,000 miles north.

The group, which includes about one-third of the Republican lawmakers in the Oregon Legislature and three candidates, plans to visit Yuma, Arizona, and meet with Arizona lawmakers in Phoenix. They’ll pay for the trip with personal or campaign funds, and a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans who will join the trip plans to use vacation time to attend.

Many of the lawmakers attending the border tour signed a letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this year praising his standoff with the Biden administration over border issues. Abbott has put up razor wire on the border, bused tens of thousands of undocumented migrants to Democratic cities far from the border and blocked U.S. Border Patrol agents from accessing some land.

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said the Oregon lawmakers’ letter to Abbott led to more connections with their colleagues in Arizona and Texas, resulting in an invitation to visit the border in Arizona. Despite Oregon’s distance from the southern border, he said Oregonians should be concerned about illegal immigration and drug smuggling.

“We know that there are drugs coming over the border, and those end up in probably all states, but certainly in the western states,” he said. “We’ve obviously seen some crime impact from people who have come in illegally. I think all of us want legal immigration, and recognize the need, but we also want to know who’s in the country and right now, we don’t, and that there’s significant danger there.”

Crime and immigration have been increasingly linked in Republican rhetoric, but researchers say immigrants of all sorts are less likely to commit crimes than American-born residents. Federal law enforcement reports that, while the southern border is a significant drug smuggling route, most of the drugs are brought by “highly organized and compartmentalized” Mexican organized crime groups, not immigrants and asylum seekers.

Knopp, who led Senate Republicans’ six-week 2023 walkout over abortion and transgender health care legislation, can’t return to the Legislature next year because voters approved a constitutional amendment barring lawmakers who miss 10 or more days of floor sessions from reelection. He said he expects Oregon Republicans to introduce bills related to border security, immigration and crime – though what effect they could have when the federal government controls immigration policy and Democrats control Oregon’s legislative and executive branches remains to be seen.

The Oregon Republicans will participate in a tour of the border in Yuma led by Jonathan Lines, a Yuma County supervisor and former chairman of the Arizona Republican Party.

His itinerary for the Oregon Republicans includes walking along the border itself and seeing the different barriers erected on the orders of past administrations. He’ll also take the visitors to meet with nongovernmental organizations and groups in Yuma, including visiting a local hospital and food bank. They’ll meet with leaders from Amberly’s Place, a local child welfare center and hear from former Arizona Democratic state Sen. Amanda Aguirre, who leads the Regional Center for Border Health.

“For many people, this is not real,” he said. “They see images.”

Lines told the Capital Chronicle he has fielded many requests from elected officials and candidates – most of them Republicans, though Democrat-turned-independent candidate for president Robert F. Kennedy Jr. participated in one – to tour the border. Some come just to get campaign photos and videos and others are there to learn, he said, but he shares the same information with both groups.

Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, said he’s joining the trip because he wants to hear from Arizonans about how Oregon can help “try and keep the bad guys out while allowing legal immigration to occur.” He hears frequently from voters about border concerns, and he’s trying to figure out the connection between the southern border and the limited authority held by lawmakers in Salem.

“What I do know is we’ve heard testimony at the Capitol about drug cartels,” he said. “In my small little town of Milton-Freewater, I’ve got Highway 11, and four months ago in December, I had over 200 people in a room, asking me,the state police and ODOT to create a safety corridor because they were concerned about drug cartels driving through and human trafficking cartels coming through.”

Smith said he also hopes to meet with Arizona lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, to deliver an Oregon flag and discuss issues that matter to them. Sen. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford and no relation, also hopes to double-dip on the trip by connecting with Arizona lawmakers: He wants to build a coalition of western legislators who can work together on fire policy and exert pressure on Congress to provide resources to prevent and respond to the infernos that blaze across the Western U.S. each year.

He said illegal drugs, many of which law enforcement suspects make it across the southern border, are a top concern in his southern Oregon district.

“There’s basically three ways to get drugs to Portland and two of them, two of those highways come through my district,” Brock Smith said.

Earlier this month, for instance Oregon State Police reported that they stopped a Phoenix man driving north of Roseburg with 62 pounds of methamphetamine and 22,000 fentanyl-laced pills that police said the man was taking to Portland.

Democrats panned the visit as a campaign stunt. Hannah Howell, executive director of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, FuturePAC, said Democrats are staying in Oregon to fix Oregon’s problems and Republicans are welcome to join them.

“It’s honestly baffling,” Howell said. “While Oregonians are worried about rising prices and safety and homelessness, Republicans are inventing a reason to bring divisive national problems – that they don’t even know how to solve – to our state.”

Howell’s counterpart at the Senate Democratic Leadership Fund, Oliver Muggli, added “Oregonians expect their elected officials to be focused on our people in our state, not playing MAGA politics a thousand miles away. This is a cheap election-year stunt that does nothing except show how deeply out-of-touch Republican politicians are with Oregon priorities.”

Who’s going to the border?

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend

Sen. Fred Girod, R-Silverton

Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville

Sen. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford

Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer

Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner

Rep. Court Boice, R-Gold Beach

Rep. Virgle Osborne, R-Roseburg

Rep. Boomer Wright, R-Coos Bay

Rep. Lucetta Elmer, R-McMinnville

Rep. Christine Goodwin, R-Canyonville

Rep. Dwayne Yunker, R-Grants Pass

Bruce Starr, Senate candidate from Dundee

Michael Summers, Senate candidate from Redmond

Keri Lopez, House candidate from Redmond

The Oregon Capital Chronicle is a professional, nonprofit news organization. We are an affiliate of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Capital Chronicle retains full editorial independence, meaning decisions about news and coverage are made by Oregonians for Oregonians.

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. Julia is an award-winning journalist who reported on the tangled efforts to audit the 2020 presidential election results in Arizona.