In this Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014 photo, Ron McKenzie holds a prayer program titled “Love Conquers Fear” following a service at the First United Methodist Church in Fremont, Neb. The service was held ahead of a special election on Tuesday, Feb. 11, to decide whether to drop housing restrictions against illegal immigrants, as had been approved by Fremont voters in the 2010 elections. The city leaders scheduled the special election because of concerns the housing restrictions could cost them millions in federal grants and lead to more lawsuits against the city. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
FREMONT, Neb. (AP) — Almost four years after a small Nebraska city tried to crack down on illegal immigration, the town is having second thoughts about requiring all renters to swear that they have legal permission to be in the United States.
In an election Tuesday, voters in Fremont will have a chance to repeal the housing restrictions, which critics say are less effective and more costly than anyone expected and damaging to the city’s image.
This conservative agricultural hub near Omaha, population 26,000, was one of a handful of cities that have acted on their own over the last decade to curb illegal immigration. Most of those efforts have become mired in costly court battles.
The same is true in Fremont, where the regulations were adopted in 2010 but put on hold 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.
Supporters of the ordinance want city officials to stop quarreling about the issue and start enforcing the rental rules.
“We voted on it and told you how we felt. They are just ignoring the will of the people,” said Micaela Shuster, a resident who said elected officials seem to be asking the same questions over and over until they get the outcome they want.
Critics of the restrictions say they have hurt the city’s reputation without accomplishing much.
“Most people agree we need to change our federal immigration system. This ordinance doesn’t address that,” Virginia Meyer said while taking a break from distributing roughly 500 yard signs encouraging people to vote against the rules.
Supporters insist the measure does not target Hispanics, but the topic can make for awkward conversation given Fremont’s growing immigrant population. The number of Hispanics 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.
The law passed with 57 percent of the vote. The key to Tuesday’s outcome will be how many people have changed their minds and whether turnout surpasses the 6,916 people who cast ballots last time.
“I don’t think it’s so much that people have shifted (since 2010) as much as they are more aware of the issues,” said Krista Anderson, who also campaigned against the original ordinance.
The town’s small liberal arts university could be another factor. For this vote, Midland University’s professors and 1,300 students will be on campus. The last vote took place during the school’s summer break.
If the housing restrictions take effect, City Council members are worried about additional lawsuits. And the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development warned last year that Fremont could lose community-development grants that have been worth $7.1 million over the past 15 years.
Since the start of the year, Fremont’s churches have sponsored a series of prayer services to encourage residents to think carefully about their vote. The Rev. Scott Jensen said the local ministerial league has long opposed the ordinance.
“We unite in our understanding that we should love one another as God loved us, and that love should extend to all persons,” Jensen said.
In their attempt to crack down on illegal immigration, Fremont and the other cities sought to ban hiring or renting to anyone who is in the country illegally. Most of those rules became stalled in court, with communities such as Hazelton, Pa., and Farmers Branch, Texas, racking up big legal bills.
Fremont 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, Mo., have modified or abandoned ordinances in the face of court challenges and dissent, as Fremont is considering.
It’s not clear how many people live in Fremont illegally. According to census figures, the town is home to 1,150 noncitizens. That figure includes immigrants who do not have permission to be in the U.S., as well as lawful permanent residents, foreign students and refugees who are legally in the U.S.
Lifelong Fremont resident Brad Yerger said he’s skeptical that the ordinance will cost as much as officials estimate. The 66-year-old said the law should be enforced as a means of curbing illegal immigration.
“It’s not about jobs and HUD money,” Yerger said. “It’s all about whether you’re going to stand up to illegal immigrants.”
In the nation’s capital, 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.
Tuesday’s vote in Fremont will not 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 other 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 would also require landlords to make sure their tenants have permits or face a $100 fine.
After the vote, civil rights groups that have challenged the ordinance will decide whether to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the issue.
Business leaders say the ordinance has given Fremont a troubling image of intolerance that makes it harder to attract new companies.
“Professionally,” said Ron Tillery, executive director of the Fremont Area Chamber of Commerce, “I’ve had very few conversations with people who see this as a positive.”