Fremont, NE Voters Pass Anti-Undocumented Immigrant Measure

Fremont, NE Chamber of Commerce Building - Photo: llis45/flickr

Fremont, NE Chamber of Commerce Building. (Photo: llis45/flickr)

After a two year battle, voters in a small city in Nebraska have decided that they will essentially make it impossible for paperless immigrants to live or work within city-limits. Under the harsh new law local businesses will be banned from hiring undocumented immigrants and landlords prohibited from renting to them.

The Fremont Tribune posted unofficial results from the Dodge County Clerk’s Office showing voters approved the measure 57 percent to 43 percent in the special election. With approximately 45 percent voters turnout, 3,906 ballots were cast in favor of the ordinance and 2,908 against.

Immediately, the ACLU of Nebraska announced it would file a suit against the law, saying it was un-American and unconstitutional.

In a striking difference from Arizona, which passed a controversial law targeting undocumented immigrants in late April, Fremont has a relatively small undocumented immigrant population: an estimated 2,000—about 10 percent of Fremont’s population. Yet they’ve set off a passionate battle that is dividing the city. In the past few weeks, vandalism and contentious arguments have been documented in local newspapers. Opponents of the law say it will spur discrimination and hurt the city economically. Supporters allege that immigrants are stealing jobs and causing crime to rise in the community of 25,000. Yet there is no data supporting those claims, and statistics show the perception of civil ills caused by undocumented immigrants is much greater than the reality.

In an interesting twist, Fremont has a low employment rate of just 4.9 percent, well under the national average of 9.7 percent, signaling that job competition probably is not the real motivation behind this law. Hispanic immigrants have been subject to racial slurs on the streets of Fremont, and some wonder if the law stems from discomfort about the changing face of a city that was once a mostly-white farming and railroad town.

Voters had to respond Yes or No to the question below:

PROPOSED ORDINANCE NO. 5165

“Shall the City of Fremont, Nebraska, enact proposed Ordinance No. 5165, amending the Fremont Municipal Code to prohibit the harboring of illegal aliens or hiring of unauthorized aliens, providing definitions, making provision for occupancy licenses, providing judicial process, repealing conflicting provisions, and establishing an effective date for this ordinance?”

Kristin Ostrom, who opposes the measure, said that fear was motivating people in Fremont. “Fear is kind of guiding,” Ostrom told the Associated Press, adding that frustration about immigration issues nationwide has fanned the misconception that all Hispanic immigrants in Fremont are illegal.

In the absence of national immigration reform, many other states have introduced similar legislation to Arizona’s SB 1070. But Fremont’s case is somewhat unique, because the city’s local political leaders refused to approve the law, saying it would be too costly to pay for litigation. Subsequently, a group of residents forced it all the way up to the Nebraska Supreme Court, where they got approval to take the issue to voters in a referendum. Its an instance where citizens took immigration policy into their own hands, despite the fact that it virtually assures expensive legal challenges for stepping into the jurisdiction of the federal government. Recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaked that the Department of Justice will sue Arizona over SB 1070.

Tension rose in Fremont from the fact that immigrants have become a visible part of the workforce at local meatpacking plants. In March, immigration officials arrested 17 workers in an “enforcement action” at the Fremont beef plant. Under the new law, employers will be required to use the E-Verify system to determine the legal status of employees. But ironically, the meatpacking plants are outside the city limits and won’t be subject to the ordinance. Supporters say that doesn’t matter. “‘We have to start somewhere,’ John Wiegert, a resident, told The New York Times.

The Washington Post reports that city leaders say the ordinance will cost Fremont at least $1 million a year to implement and enforce, and they’ll have to raise taxes and cut services to pay for it.

“It’s the wrong solution,” said longtime resident Don Hinds, owner of a commercial investment business in the city. It would be a “tremendous burden on landlords, city officials and the police department.”

Despite the passage of Ordinance No. 5165, and potentially additional anti-undocumented immigrant legislation in other parts of the country, there are no signs from the Obama Administration or Congress that a comprehensive immigration bill will be considered this year. In the meantime, we’ll be seeing a lot of court battles.

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