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Town takes immigrant debate to vote

Angered by an influx of Hispanic workers attracted by jobs at meatpacking plants, voters in a Nebraska town will decide Monday whether to ban hiring or renting property to illegal immigrants.
Kristin Olstrom, Bryan Henricksen
Kristin Olstrom, who is opposed to a proposed law that would ban hiring or renting property to illegal immigrants in Fremont, Neb., gives election material to supporter Bryan Henricksen on Saturday. Clay Lomneth / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Angered by a recent influx of Hispanic workers attracted by jobs at local meatpacking plants, voters in the eastern Nebraska city of Fremont will decide Monday whether to ban hiring or renting property to illegal immigrants.

The vote will be the culmination of a two-year fight that saw proponents collect enough signatures to put the question to a public vote. If the ordinance is approved, the community of 25,000 people could face a long and costly court battle. Either way, the emotions stirred up won't settle quickly.

"Even if we say 'no' ... we still need to say, 'How do we get along with each other now?'" said Kristin Ostrom, who helps oversee a campaign against the measure.

Across the nation, people have been outraged by — and demanded action against — the poor enforcement of federal laws to prevent illegal immigration. A law recently introduced in Arizona requires police to question people on their immigration status if there's a "reasonable suspicion" they are illegal.

A man who helped write the Arizona law is helping to fight for the ordinance in Fremont, which has seen its Hispanic population surge in the past two decades. That increase is largely because they were recruited to work for the Fremont Beef and Hormel plants, and the city maintains an enviably low unemployment rate.

Nonetheless, residents worry that jobs are going to illegal immigrants who they fear could drain community resources.

Clint Walraven, who has lived in Fremont all his 51 years, 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," he said. "We all have to play by the same rules. ... If you want to stay here, get legal."

When he worked at the Hormel plant in the 1980s, Walraven said, he had one Hispanic co-worker.

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. In May, Fremont recorded just 4.9 percent unemployment, in line with the statewide rate and significantly lower than the national average of 9.7 percent.

How renting, hiring checks would work
If approved, 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.

Supporters of the proposal say it's needed to make up for what they see as lax federal law enforcement. Opponents say it could fuel discrimination.

Results are expected Monday night.

Ron Tillery, executive director of the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the measure, said businesses are concerned the E-Verify system isn't reliable and that they would be subject to fines if forced to rely on it. He pointed out that the main targets of the ordinance — the Fremont Beef and Hormel plants — would not be covered by it anyway because they are located outside the city.

Walraven said the measure is necessary because workers send their salaries to family in Mexico instead of spending it in the city.

"I understand supporting your family," he said, "But it's very much at our expense. We're footing the bill."

Those costs include spending on education and medical care, said Jerry Hart, a Fremont resident who petitioned for the vote. He said the ordinance would help curb that spending and protect jobs.

He said it would also end the divisiveness that's taken over.

"The division is because the illegal aliens are here and nobody's taken care of it," he said. "If it does not pass, it's going to get worse."

The Fremont Tribune has reported several instances of legal Hispanic residents being told to return to Mexico, including a woman who was shoved and yelled at by an elderly white man in a grocery store.

Hart said he's been called a Nazi.

"Fear is kind of guiding," said Ostrom, adding that frustration about immigration issues nationwide ignites a misconception that all Hispanic immigrants in Fremont are illegal.

Sandra Leffler, 69, who owns a downtown antique store with her husband, Marv, said she knows not all Hispanics are illegal immigrants, but that it's hard not to think that way. She said she scrutinizes her Hispanic customers.

"I have to admit, when I see them come into the store ... I can't help wondering if I'm profiling someone who's completely honest," she said.

The Fremont City Council narrowly rejected a policy similar to the proposed ordinance in 2008, but proponents got it to a public vote and the state Supreme Court refused to block it.

The Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has threatened a lawsuit, and the city worries about the cost of defending the policy. The city has estimated the legal action would cost $1 million per year to fight — costs that would have to be covered by property tax raises and city job cuts.

Kansas City, Mo.-based attorney Kris Kobach, who worked on the Arizona law and has been in legal battles over local ordinances elsewhere, said Valley Park, Mo. paid between $250,000 and $300,000 in legal fees in a similar case. Valley Park, like Fremont, is covered by the 8th Circuit.

State Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont, who has said he may introduce an Arizona-style bill in the Legislature next session, said it's unfortunate residents have to decide how to vote amid threats of a lawsuit. He has declined to give his position on the ordinance, saying residents need to decide on their own.

"A vote for or against the ordinance does not make you more or less patriotic," he said in a posting on his legislative blog. "Just as a vote for or against the ordinance does not make you racist or not."