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Immigration vote stirs emotions in Neb. town

As the owner of a general store that caters to the growing number of Latinos in this Nebraska town, Alfredo Velez has new concerns after a vote to crack down on illegal immigrants.
Image: John Wiegert
John Wiegert votes on an ordinance that would  ban hiring or renting property to illegal immigrants in the city of Fremont, Neb. Dave Weaver / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

While busy running a general store that caters to the growing number of Latinos in this Nebraska meatpacking town, Alfredo Velez had new concerns Tuesday after his neighbors voted for an ordinance to crack down on illegal immigrants.

To Velez, the vote a day earlier in Fremont to ban hiring or renting property to illegal immigrants sent a clear message: "We're not welcome here," said Velez, a native of Mexico who became a U.S. citizen in 1985.

As a business owner, though, he worried about his store, Guerrero, which sells food and other products from Mexico and Central America.

"How much more in taxes am I going to have to pay for this thing to go to court?" wondered Velez, 56. "We're all going to have to pay for it, no matter what color our skin is."

With roughly 57 percent of voters supporting the ordinance, Fremont joins Arizona and a few other cities in the national debate over immigration regulations. The community about 35 miles northwest of Omaha has seen its Hispanic population surge in the past two decades, largely due to the jobs available at the nearby Fremont Beef and Hormel plants.

'They shouldn't be here in the first place'
Supporters argued the measure was necessary to make up for what they see as lax federal law enforcement. 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."

Opponents said it could fuel discrimination. The American Civil Liberties Union has promised to file a lawsuit to block enforcement of the Fremont proposal, which could mean a lengthy and costly court fight.

"We are moving as quickly as possible, because we don't want this law to be in effect for even one day," said Amy Miller, legal director for the Nebraska ACLU.

Election officials expect to certify the vote on Monday, but it's unclear when the law would take effect. The Fremont City Council will vote to certify the results, City Manager Robert Hartwig said, and the ordinance will take effect within 30 days of that vote. Hartwig did not say when the City Council might vote.

The legal fight could drag on for years, as it has in Hazleton, Pa., one of the first cities in the U.S. to pass an ordinance targeting illegal immigrants in 2006.

"Buckle up. It's going to be a bumpy ride," Hazleton Mayor Louis Barletta said.

Hazleton ordinance tied up in court
The Fremont measure, which requires city officials and employers to ensure that applicants are in the country legally, was modeled after the Hazleton ordinance. But that law has been tied up in court and has never been enforced. A federal judge struck down the ordinance, but it is on appeal.

Barletta said the community of about 32,000 has paid $500,000 — all covered by private donors — so far to defend the ordinance. But that's only a portion of Hazleton's $5 million legal bill. Its insurer has refused to pay the $4.5 remainder in legal fees, Barletta said, and Hazleton is suing the insurer to collect. The costs could go much higher, as opposition lawyers are seeking $2 million from Hazleton to cover their fees — and that doesn't include fees accumulated in the appeal process.

In Fremont, officials are aware of the potential costs. Hartwig distributed information before the vote, noting not only Hazleton's costs to fight lawsuits but those that other towns incurred defending their own immigration ordinances. Farmers Branch, Texas, has run up more than $3 million in legal fees since 2006, and Valley Park, Mo., has seen about $270,000 in fees since 2008, Hartwig's statement said.

Fremont officials are assuming that the costs of the ordinance — which includes legal fees, employee overtime and improved computer software — will average $1 million a year, the statement said.

But city officials might still be underestimating the toll the ordinance could take on Fremont's economy, said Velez, who also owns a downtown apartment building and fears the ordinance will chase away renters. He said other businesses that rely on immigrant labor could be hurt, and the city will most certainly lose tax revenue if the ordinance drives some people out of town.

"Even if they're illegal, they're paying taxes," Velez said. "Employers withhold taxes for everyone on the rolls. They pay sales taxes. They pay taxes for everything."

'They don't look as friendly at us'
After 12 years in Fremont, the father of four considers the city home and has no plans to leave — but said the vote by his neighbors stung.

"The people say it's not about Hispanics, but it is," he said. "The Anglos, they don't look as friendly at us when we pass on the street.

Pineda Arul of nearby Wahoo, who was shopping in Fremont on Tuesday, was angered by Monday's vote and said some Americans seem to have forget their own history as immigrants from Europe.

"They try to make us look bad, saying we're bringing all these drugs into America," said Arul, a 40-year-old auto mechanic originally from Mexico City who said he became a U.S. citizen 20 years ago. "Let me ask you: Who is the one buying the drugs? White Americans, that's who. We're just here to work."