Nebraska town, angered by influx of meatpackers, approves illegal immigration restrictions

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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FREMONT, Neb. — Voters in the eastern Nebraska city of Fremont on Monday approved a ban on hiring or renting property to illegal immigrants, the latest proposal in a series of immigration regulations taken up by communities around Ameica.

About 57 per cent of voters in Fremont supported the proposal, according to unofficial results that still must be certified by the election commissioner. The measure is likely to face a long and costly court battle, with the American Civil Liberties Union saying it will try to block it before it even goes into effect.

The town of about 25,000 people has watched as its Hispanic population surged in the past two decades, largely due to the jobs available at the nearby Fremont Beef and Hormel meatpacking plants. The city also has an enviably low unemployment rate that matches the Nebraska rate of 4.9 per cent.

Nonetheless, residents worry that jobs are going to illegal immigrants who they fear could drain community resources. Proponents of the ballot measure collected enough signatures and fought in the Nebraska Supreme Court to put the question to a public vote.

Supporters say the measure is needed to make up for what they see as lax federal law enforcement. Opponents say it could fuel discrimination.

Trevor McClurg said the measure is fair because it’s aimed at people who aren’t legally in the U.S.

“I don’t think it’s right to be able to rent to them or hire them,” McClurg said. “They shouldn’t be here in the first place.”

Clint Walraven, 51, who has lived in Fremont all his life, said the jobs should go to legal residents who are unemployed — something he believes the ordinance would help fix. Discussions on the issue can get heated, he said, particularly if racism is mentioned.

“It has nothing to do with being racist,” said. “We all have to play by the same rules. ... If you want to stay here, get legal.”

Rachel Fleming said she voted against the measure, noting that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants.

“This country has been founded on waves of immigration,” Fleming said. “I just think it’s (the ordinance) contrary to the spirit of the country.”

From about 165 Hispanics — both legal and illegal — living in Fremont in 1990, the total surged to 1,085 in 2000, according to census expert David Drozd at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He said an estimated 2,060 Hispanics lived there last year.

The measure will require potential renters to apply for a license to rent. The application process will force Fremont officials to check if the renters are in the country legally. If they are found to be illegal, they will not be issued a license allowing them to rent. The ordinance also requires businesses to use the federal E-Verify database to ensure employees are allowed to work.

Communities that have passed such laws have faced costly legal bills and struggled to enforce them because of legal challenges. Hazleton, Pennsylvania, passed an ordinance in 2006 to fine landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and deny permits to businesses hiring them. The Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch also has tried for years to enforce a ban on landlords renting to illegal immigrants. Federal judges struck down both ordinances, but both are on appeal.

Even before the Fremont measure passed, the ACLU of Nebraska had said it would sue.

“Our goal would be to bring an action to ensure that there is not even one day that the law can go into effect,” said Amy Miller, legal director for the ACLU of Nebraska.

Fremont City Councilman Scott Getzschman said he wasn’t sure when the ordinance would take effect if it’s not blocked by a judge. Once the Dodge County election commissioner certifies it, the City Council must accept the vote.

Getzschman didn’t support the measure but said he expects city leaders will respect the outcome of the election and defend the ordinance in court.

The vote is the latest chapter in the tumult over illegal immigration across the country, including a recently passed Arizona law that will require police investigating another incident or crime to ask people about their immigration status if there’s a “reasonable suspicion” they’re in the country illegally.

Kansas City, Missouri-based attorney Kris Kobach, who helped write the Arizona law, has been working on the ordinance in Fremont. He is also running for secretary of state in Kansas.

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Online:

City of Fremont’s information on proposed ordinance: http://www.fremontne.gov/index.aspx?NID434

Dodge County Election Commissioner: http://www.dodgecounty.ne.gov/election.html

Organizations: American Civil Liberties Union, University of Nebraska

Geographic location: FREMONT, Nebraska, U.S. Arizona Hazleton, Pennsylvania Dallas Farmers Branch Kansas

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