The Nebraska city of Fremont is snatching some of the national spotlight from Arizona as it ramps up for a special election on a controversial measure aimed at illegal immigrants.
Fremont's June 21 vote is believed to be the country's first on an anti-illegal immigration measure since the April passage of the Arizona law that ignited emotional debate and demonstrations across the country and even outside the U.S.
National groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which has challenged the Arizona law, say they are watching Fremont. So are organizations that support tougher immigration enforcement.
While Fremont's election results would directly affect only activity within the borders of the city of about 25,000, observers say the outcome stands to have a broader impact for other reasons.
It could set a legal precedent and motivate more towns across the nation to enact similar laws, said Kris Kobach, a Kansas attorney who wrote the Arizona law and who represents the Fremont petitioners.
“Many eyes will be on Fremont, Neb., to see what happens,” he said.
Kobach said Fremont is just the second American city to take an anti-illegal immigration ordinance to the polls. Many cities have considered similar measures in recent years, but those typically lived or died by a vote of the City Council or other governing body — not by a vote of the people.
With November congressional elections approaching and illegal immigration a hot issue in plenty of races, many agree that a popular vote of a Midwestern town like Fremont will be an indicator of public sentiment.
“People are looking for barometers of what is going to happen in November 2010,” said Kobach.
The Fremont immigration measure, which emerged in 2008, already has divided the city just west of the Omaha-Council Bluffs metropolitan area.
A dramatic tie-breaking vote by the mayor initially rejected the ordinance. Residents then collected more than the 3,000 signatures to put the issue on the ballot, and the Nebraska Supreme Court, while not ruling on the measure's constitutionality, agreed the vote should take place.
To be sure, the Fremont city ordinance and Arizona's statewide law, which goes into effect in late July barring a successful legal challenge, differ in several respects, although both aim to clear out illegal immigrants.
Fremont's measure is housing- and job-based. It intends to stop illegal immigrants from renting or working in the city limits.
Arizona's Senate Bill 1070, passed by its GOP-led Legislature and signed by the governor, also targets employment but is more police-based. It compels officers to question someone stopped for another reason about his immigration status and detain him if he can't produce proof he's in the U.S. legally.
Each law surfaced in places so fed up with the federal government's inability to enforce or change the nation's immigration laws that they, as state and local jurisdictions, took matters into their own hands.
In just the few weeks since Arizona passed its law, lawmakers in at least 17 states including Nebraska have said they are considering copycat legislation.
In the first quarter of this year, state lawmakers in 45 states introduced 1,180 bills and resolutions related to immigrants and refugees — up from 1,040 during the same period in 2009.
Nearly 110 laws were actually enacted by 34 states in that timeframe, beating the 35 laws passed by 25 legislatures the year before.
Most but not all local actions were aimed at getting rid of illegal immigrants. A Washington law, for example, called for the creation of an education program for vulnerable youth including immigrants.
The flurry of local legislation is adding to the pressure on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform and avoid adding to a hodgepodge of laws regulating immigration.
“There is real frustration because our immigration system is broken,” said Michele Waslin of the Washington-based Immigration Policy Center. “But you also need to look at what this type of legislation says about you as a city.”
Fremont petitioners view the proposed ordinance as a means to curb public health, law-enforcement and education costs they say are rising because of illegal immigration.
Andy Schnatz Sr. of Fremont believes enactment of the ordinance also would free up low-wage jobs he says have been taken by illegal immigrants. He says it would return the “rule of law” to his hometown.
“I'm 72 years old,” said Schnatz. “I served in the military, paid my debts, my bills. Don't I deserve a better life? We're fed up with people coming in, breaking our laws and the government not doing anything about it.”
Nebraska-born Latinos like Virgil and Angie Armendariz, on the other hand, cringe at a neighboring community being cast in the same light as Arizona, which has created an image-boosting commission to counter boycotts and loss of tourism and other business due to negative publicity over the law.
The Armendarizes in the wake of Arizona's new law canceled a vacation to the state that they'd planned for years. Like President Barack Obama, the couple fears the new Arizona law could violate civil rights and lead to racial profiling.
“I remember a time when we had to live with this kind of fear,” said Virgil Armendariz. “I can't go back to that.”
Jonathan Blazer of the National Immigration Legal Center predicts at least one thing: laws like the one in Arizona send an unwelcome message that drives out immigrants both illegal and legal.
For cities like Fremont — where growth this decade has been 85 percent foreign-born — that would signal a radical change in complexion and population.
Today, immigrants make up 4.4 percent of Fremont, compared to 1.1 percent in 1990. Put another way, Fremont added more than 900 Hispanics since 2000 while the white non-Hispanic numbers dropped by about 550.
Lourdes Gouveia, a University of Nebraska at Omaha sociologist, said promoters of the Fremont ordinance are scapegoating immigrants for a recession-driven decline in their quality of life. Instead, she said, they should be addressing their failed economic development policies.
“This discontent has been brewing for a long time,” Gouveia said. “Unless we look at the root, we won't understand why.”
From Michael Nolan's point of view, the matter is purely financial. As the overseer of the municipal risk pool that would pay lawsuit fees for Fremont, he is concerned that Fremont's costs could soar into the millions faced by some other cities that have tried similar measures.
The local ACLU said it is likely to file legal action if the Fremont ordinance passes, and past court decisions don't bode well for the ordinance, Nolan said.
“I can't tell my client, Fremont, that there will be coverage,” said Nolan, director of the League Association of Risk Management, which is affiliated with the League of Nebraska Municipalities.
While national eyes are turning in to Fremont, Blazer of the National Immigration Legal Center said that his organization is puzzled over why Fremont is pushing a housing-based approach that has been struck down elsewhere.
Even William Gheen of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC said his group has shifted its national efforts away from city ordinances like Fremont's and toward state legislation like Arizona's.
“Courts have been more favorable to the states having the authority” to enact immigration-related laws, Gheen said.
Yet Kobach — who has represented high-profile cases that are on appeal in cities including Farmer's Branch, Texas, and Hazelton, Penn. — said he is confident courts will view Fremont's case differently.
He said his Fremont clients already have trudged a dramatic course. And he wants an attack on illegal immigration from all government levels.
“I take it as a challenge when people suggest it can't be done,” Kobach said.
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