FREMONT, Neb. — City officials warned of higher taxes. Residents were told they’d likely see cuts in city services to pay for anticipated legal challenges.
Yet voters here Monday passed a controversial law aimed at ridding their town of illegal immigrants.
“You’ve got to take a step,” said Jerry Hart, a leader of a petition drive to put the ordinance on the ballot. “You’ve got to do something.”
Residents in this town of 25,000 just west of Omaha voted 57-43 percent in favor of the ordinance that city officials warned could bring a legal battle costing up to $1 million annually. The results were a reflection, supporters said, of growing frustration with illegal immigration and the federal government’s lax enforcement.
But as quickly as supporters raised a glass to celebrate their victory at the polls, the legal challenge was on. The ACLU Monday night promised a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of the city ordinance that aims to cut off housing and jobs to illegal immigrants by fining landlords and employers who house or hire them.
“Our intention is to make sure the law does not go into effect for even one day,” said Amy Miller of the Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s un-American. It’s unconstitutional.”
And, she said, it would unfairly discriminate against all Hispanics.
Already, Brenda Garcia said she was feeling a colder shoulder. She moved to Fremont 12 years ago, drawn by its peaceful atmosphere and family environment. Monday when she arrived at her polling place, she was the only Hispanic there.
“When I opened the door, everyone turned and looked at me,” she said.
Monday’s vote was the latest spark in the country’s explosive and emotional debate over illegal immigration.
It was the country’s first public vote on an immigration law since the April passage of the Arizona law that ignited emotional debate and demonstrations across the country and even outside the U.S.
Fremont’s special election came at a time when Capitol Hill is embroiled over how to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, which most agree is broken.
Indeed, national news media converged upon Fremont in the days leading up to the vote and Monday, seeking to gauge small town America’s sentiments on the divisive issue heating up political races all over the nation.
While Monday’s election results — about 45 percent of registered voters turned out — directly affect only activity within Fremont’s borders, observers said the outcome could set a legal precedent and motivate more towns across the nation to enact similar laws.
Don Blackford of Logan, Iowa, for example, said he will push western Iowa towns to follow suit.
Blackford is a member of the Harrison County chapter of the anti-illegal immigration group the Iowa Patriots. He also is a member of NAG, the Nebraska Advisory Group.
“There will be a ripple effect,” Blackford said. “Towns are screaming for help. They’re crying for help.”
Fremont supporters of the ballot measure said they were motivated by jobs lost to illegal immigrants and by rising costs from emergency rooms and classrooms handling illegal immigrants.
Hispanics today make up about 8 percent of Fremont’s population, compared to about 4 percent in 2000. The growth this decade in Fremont has been 85 percent immigrants, drawn largely by jobs at meatpacking plants that sit just outside the city limits.
The potentially precedent-setting move, however, will come with a price tag for residents of Fremont.
City officials have estimated — based on two other cities currently fighting legal challenges to similar laws — that Fremont taxpayers could see a double-digit city property tax hike and cuts in city services or a combination of both.
If the measure ultimately stands up in court, city officials said roughly $200,000 more would be spent each year to enforce the provisions that punish landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers.
John Weigert, another petition leader, dismissed the city’s cost estimates as “scare tactics.” If the city attorney handles the case properly, it won’t be as expensive as some predict, he said.
Fremont City Council President Gary Bolton said Monday night that the people of Fremont have spoken, but he is concerned. “It’s going to be very costly for the city while this is litigated, and we need to be prepared for that.”
It was a two-year battle to get the ordinance to a public vote.
More than 1,000 people packed an auditorium for the first public hearing of the measure in July 2008. Bomb-sniffing dogs were on site, as were some 40 police officers. The hearing ended in a dramatic tie-breaking vote by the mayor to defeat the ordinance.
But residents collected more than enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot. The Nebraska Supreme Court, while not ruling on the law’s constitutionality, agreed a vote should take place.
Despite the media spotlight, Fremont families Monday went on with normal activities — playing softball, stopping for ice cream, watching their kids splash in the water at a sprayground near the football field. Some mothers watching tots play in the water didn’t know enough about the ordinance to talk about it.
As the results came in Monday, tears were shed among about 75 people, most of them Hispanic, who attended a One Fremont, One Future potluck. Kristin Ostrom, a co-leader, said the election results followed the pattern of generations of people viewing new immigrants with suspicion and distrust.
“We’ll get up tomorrow,” she said, “and try to pull the community together, try to continue to spread the message that most Hispanics are legal and are part of our community. . . . People will wake up to realize that it will cost a lot of taxes and it won’t change a thing.”