Nebraska town, angered by influx of workers at meatpacking plant, votes on immigration measure

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Neb. town votes on illegal immigration measure

FREMONT, Neb. — Many voters in the eastern Nebraska city of Fremont supported a ban on hiring or renting property to illegal immigrants, according to preliminary results from Monday’s special election.

With votes from seven of 20 precincts counted, 58 percent of residents were supporting the measure — the latest proposal in a series of immigration regulations taken up by communities around the country. Full results were not expected until later Monday night.

The town 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 percent.

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. If the ordinance is approved, the community of 25,000 people could also face a long and costly court battle because the American Civil Liberties Union has promised to file a lawsuit.

Linda Nafziger said she voted for it because she doesn’t think the community should be supporting illegal immigrants.

“I don’t think we owe them a free ride,” Nafziger said.

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 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, Mo.-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.

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.

Communities that have passed such laws have faced costly legal bills and struggled to enforce them because of legal challenges. Hazleton, Pa., 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.


City of Fremont’s information on proposed ordinance:

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