Nebraska city voting on 2010 immigration law

February 11, 2014 • Business

An unidentified voter writes yes on her “I Voted” sticker at a polling station in Fremont, Neb., Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014. Fremont voters are voting on whether to scrap the city’s housing restrictions that were supposed to make it hard for people living in the country illegally to live there. This new vote on the ordinance voters approved in 2010 was scheduled because city leaders are worried about possibly losing federal grants and racking up big legal bills defending the law. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

FREMONT, Neb. (AP) — Voters in a small Nebraska city will decide Tuesday whether to repeal a law designed to bar [auth] immigrants from renting homes if they don’t have legal permission to be in the U.S.

Critics of the 2010 ordinance in Fremont say it is less effective and more costly than anyone expected and is damaging the city’s image. Supporters say Fremont needs to take a stand against illegal immigration.

The conservative agricultural hub, near Omaha and with 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 that requires immigrants seeking rental property to swear they have permission to live in the U.S. was 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.

“I don’t see why we have to vote on this again just because the City Council has a vested interest,” Matt Kwiatkowski said, referring to the fact that at least two council members own rental property.

The 48-year-old, who voted to keep the housing restrictions in place, 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.

Shawn Stewart, 44, is a lifelong Fremont resident who supported the immigration ordinance when it was initially approved in 2010 and voted Tuesday to keep the ordinance in place.

“If we’re going to get rid of the ordinance, we might as well open up our borders,” said Stewart, who also doesn’t have a problem with immigrants as long as they enter the U.S. legally.

Critics say these housing restrictions will be ineffective and might cost Fremont millions of dollars in legal fees and lost federal grants. City Council members are worried about the prospect of additional lawsuits.

“When you drill down and look at what this ordinance is about, it does not address immigration,” said Virginia Meyer, who opposes the ordinance and has been campaigning to repeal it, including distributing yard signs.

Supporters 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.

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.

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 in Missouri, have modified or abandoned ordinances in the face of court challenges and dissent, as Fremont is considering.

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 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 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 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.

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