At least 40 cities across the country have considered illegal immigration laws similar to the one to be voted on Monday by the people of Fremont, Neb.
In most cases, the measures died before they got out of City Council chambers or later were repealed.
Two high-profile ordinances that did advance — in Hazleton, Pa., and Farmers Branch, Texas — have yet to be enforced because they've been tied up in costly court battles for four years.
So without a U.S. town that actually has gone the distance and implemented a local immigration law dealing with housing or employment or both, Fremont essentially is in uncharted territory.
City leaders can only estimate costs to taxpayers based on unsettled experiences in other cities. Residents can only guess at the results the law might have on the community of 25,000 just west of Omaha.
“It would be a real learning curve for us,” said Fremont City Council President Gary Bolton.
In an effort to shine more light on the impact such a law might have, The World-Herald looked into the experiences of three cities that have gone the furthest to adopt laws aimed at clearing their communities of illegal immigrants.
Hazleton is considered the granddaddy, as it was the first U.S. city in 2006 to pass a local illegal immigration ordinance, said Mayor Louis Barletta.
City leaders, he said, acted out of frustration.
“The federal government has failed to enforce immigration laws,” Barletta said. “And the burden falls to the local government that must provide services at the expense of taxpayers in that community.”
The American Civil Liberties Union and Latino groups swiftly challenged Hazleton's law, which would punish landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and rescind business licenses from firms that hire illegal immigrants.
A district court judge struck down the ordinance as unconstitutional. Lower courts generally have ruled that immigration enforcement is the express duty of the federal government, not localities.
Hazleton has appealed to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
So far, the city has tapped private donations to pay $500,000 in legal defenses. Barletta said the city's costs could rise at least another $2 million if it loses at the federal appeals court level.
Hazleton's insurance carrier has denied coverage, but the city is suing to make it pay.
The mayor said he has no regrets.
He said the expense of the legal battle is small compared with costs of illegal immigration, which he said are reflected in English as a Second Language programs in public schools, hospital emergency room costs and law enforcement.
Since the discussion began, national publicity has converged upon the town of about 23,000. Barletta said he has watched many illegal immigrants leave — “some in the middle of the night.”
Opponents of the law, including businessman Amilcar Arroyo, said Barletta, who is running for Congress, is driven by political aspirations.
Arroyo, who started his Spanish newspaper seven years ago, said the ordinance in its early years divided Hazleton and scared Latino immigrants. Some closed businesses; some moved away.
More recently, he said, the Latino community has galvanized. Today, Arroyo counts about 100 Hispanic-owned businesses, up from about 40 in 2006.
The Latino population has grown to about one-third of the city of 32,000. That count includes some who are here illegally, the mayor and Arroyo said.
“We are not scared anymore,” Arroyo said. “Latinos are working with the white community to minimize segregation and racism.”
The Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch also launched its immigration ordinance in 2006 and has racked up legal fees of $3.4 million, said finance director Charles Cox.
With its case also before a federal appeals court, Cox said, costs may continue to climb.
A third of the costs are opposition lawyer fees, he said, and the rest is related to the city's defense.
About $43,000 of the tab has been paid through donations. The remainder, Cox said, has been absorbed by the city's general fund.
Mayor Tim O'Hare was on the City Council when the ordinance originally passed.
“If the difference you're hoping to make is keeping illegal aliens from moving into your town, it has made a difference already,” he said.
The latest version of the ordinance focuses on housing and contains language similar to Fremont's rental licensing provisions.
O'Hare said that since 80 percent of the city's tax base is from businesses and corporations, the town did not try to impose penalties on employers who might hire illegal immigrants.
“We've got a huge business base,” he said, “which makes trying to enforce something like that very difficult.”
O'Hare attributes changes such as the drop in the uninsured accident rate (from 33 percent to 4 percent) to the ordinance. He said civic engagement and participation in city elections has never been better.
Former City Councilwoman Carol Dingman has a different take.
“It has pretty much destroyed civil discourse in every election since,” she said. “It has caused some people to paint every Hispanic with the same brush, even those who were born here.”
Dingman said she is opposed to illegal immigration but is dismayed that her town of 28,000 is paying for a fight that should be waged on Capitol Hill.
“They're using our towns as laboratories to write different kinds of anti-immigration legislation — to see what sticks and what doesn't,” she said.
ACLU attorney Jennifer Chang Newell, who has helped fight ordinances like those in Hazleton and Farmers Branch, said that no U.S. court has upheld a law that bans housing to undocumented workers.
She and others pointed to Valley Park, Mo. Leaders there dropped housing restrictions. The 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals later upheld the remaining employment provisions, which threatened to yank operating licenses from businesses that hire illegal immigrants.
Despite Valley Park's multi-year battle, which cost more than $250,000, the St. Louis suburb never implemented its law. That's because the Missouri Legislature adopted one for the state that superseded the city's, said City Attorney Eric Martin.
Other states have passed similar legislation that calls for the use of the Internet-based E-Verify to ferret out undocumented workers.
Arizona's employer law is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Nebraska in 2009 passed similar legislation, although narrower in scope, that mandates the use of E-Verify by public agencies and their contractors. It excluded private employers but created incentives for them to participate.
Two years ago when Fremont started its discussions, Council President Bolton told supporters that he'd be more comfortable waging a battle for an employment-based ordinance. He said then that the housing piece had not withstood legal challenges.
Fremont voters Monday will vote on a proposal to do both: punish employers who hire illegal immigrants and landlords who rent to them.
Interviewed last week, Bolton did not want to say anything to sway the election. But he noted that housing restrictions still had not been upheld.
“That's been bothering me since the get-go,” Bolton said.
Even Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont — who supported the ordinance in 2008 while then on the Fremont City Council — acknowledged last week that taxpayers likely will see legal challenges and higher taxes if the measure passes.
Fremont officials have estimated that taxpayers could face $1 million a year in court costs, based on what happened in Hazleton and Farmers Branch. The Nebraska ACLU has indicated it will fight Fremont's effort.
If the law is ultimately upheld, Fremont would invest another $200,000 annually to cover staff needed to execute it. City officials called that a very rough estimate.
Fremont was behind the wave of cities that, mostly in 2006 and 2007, considered passing local immigration laws targeting employers and landlords. Most decided to step back and watch how the higher courts decide ongoing cases, said Cox, the finance director of Farmers Branch.
Nevertheless, concerns about the potential for “copycat” ordinances in cities and towns across the state prompted the board of the League of Nebraska Municipalities to contribute to opponents the largest donation reported in Fremont: $25,000.
For all of the unknowns, at least one thing is certain: A lot is at sake for cities that want to curb illegal immigration themselves.
“No matter how you look at it, $3.4 million is a lot of money,” Cox said, referring to his town's price tag. “Cities and counties and states don't take that kind of expense lightly.”
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