Residents of a small Nebraska city voted Tuesday to keep regulations that require all renters to swear they have legal permission to live in the U.S., likely pushing the city back into the forefront of the immigration debate.
Fremont voters decided to keep an ordinance that they originally adopted in 2010. Critics had said the rules were less effective and more costly than anyone expected and were damaging the city's image. But 59.6 of local voters — more than the 57 percent in favor four years ago — sided Tuesday with supporters, who say Fremont needed to take a stand against illegal immigration.
The conservative agricultural hub near Omaha that is home to about 26,000 residents is one of a handful of cities that have acted on their own over the last decade to curb illegal immigration. Most of those efforts, including ones in Hazelton, Pa., and Farmers Branch, Texas, have become mired in costly court battles.
The same is true in Fremont, where the ordinance — which requires immigrants seeking rental property to swear they have permission to live in the U.S. — was put on hold after it was first adopted while courts reviewed the law.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld most of the ordinance in 2013, and the city was getting ready to enforce the housing restrictions for the first time last fall when elected officials decided to schedule another vote.
"I don't see why we have to vote on this again just because the City Council has a vested interest," said local resident Matt Kwiatkowski, who voted to keep the housing restrictions in place, referring to the fact that at least two council members own rental property.
The 48-year-old said he doesn't have any problem with immigrants who come to this country legally, but he doesn't think the U.S. should go easy on people living here illegally. He hopes Fremont's ordinance will help increase pressure on the federal government to do something about illegal immigration.
"I think more towns need to do this given that the federal government isn't doing its job," Kwiatkowski said.
John Wiegert, who helped organize the petition drive that put the ordinance on the ballot in 2010, said he wasn't surprised because so many people were upset that city officials scheduled a second vote.
"The mayor and city council need to listen to the people," Wiegert said. "The people have spoken twice."
Critics said the housing restrictions would be ineffective and might cost Fremont millions of dollars in legal fees and lost federal grants, but that didn't persuade enough voters.
Civil rights groups said they were now planning to closely monitor Fremont's implementation of the rules.
"We are saddened by the result of today's vote, and will stand with those residents of Fremont who will be harmed by the unfortunate decision to allow a discriminatory housing ordinance to be implemented," Amy Miller, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, said Tuesday night.
The ordinance could still be derailed in the courts. The civil rights groups that have challenged the ordinance will decide later this month whether to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the issue.
Supporters of the ordinance insist the measure does not target Hispanics. The number of Hispanics in Fremont jumped from 165 in 1990 to 1,085 in 2000 and 3,149 in 2010, mostly because of jobs at the nearby Hormel and Fremont Beef plants.
When Fremont first adopted the ordinance, the city was thrust into the national spotlight partly because it acted shortly after Arizona's strict immigration law made headlines. A couple of other cities, such as Valley Park in Missouri, have modified or abandoned ordinances in the face of court challenges and dissent.
In Congress, similar issues have halted immigration reform. A Senate-passed bill appears to be dead in the House, where conservatives cite a changing series of reasons for not wanting to act. House Speaker John Boehner has all but ruled out passage of immigration legislation before the fall elections.
It's not clear how many people live in Fremont illegally. Census figures show 1,150 noncitizens live in the town, including immigrants who don't have permission to be in the U.S. and lawful permanent residents, foreign students and refugees who are legally in the country.
Tuesday's vote doesn't affect provisions of the ordinance requiring employers to use a federal online system to check whether prospective employees are permitted to work in the U.S. That part of the law has been in place since 2012, and larger employers were already using it.
The housing rules require anyone who rents a home or apartment to apply for a $5 permit and attest to their legal status, but there is no mandate to show proof. New permits are needed for every move.
The ordinance also requires landlords to make sure their tenants have permits or face a $100 fine.
Fremont Yes: http://www.fremontyes.org
Our Vote Should Count: http://www.ourvoteshouldcount.com
City's ordinance FAQ: http://www.fremontne.gov/faq.aspx?TID=25