FREMONT, Neb. — The watching and the waiting continued Monday in this town of 26,000 that thrust itself to the forefront of the national immigration policy debate two years ago.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision on Monday overturning most of an Arizona immigration law offered clues, but no final answers, on whether Fremont's ordinance will survive a legal challenge.
Passed in June 2010 after a citizen petition drive, the ordinance bars the harboring and hiring of illegal immigrants. However, it has not yet been fully implemented. Resolution must await an appeal now pending before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which most likely won't come before early next year.
The mayor and City Council have set aside more than $1 million to cover legal fees and implementation costs, although they don't know what the exact costs will be.
“It's a difficult subject, and there are no winners,” said Mayor Scott Getzschman. “It's better to go forward and work for a strong Fremont — and deal with the ordinance when the time comes.”
Meanwhile, members of Fremont's Hispanic community say they feel singled out in a town they once regarded as a comfortable and safe place to raise a family.
A year from now, ordinance supporters say, the changes they anticipated should come to pass.
“Hopefully, it will be a different community,” said Jerry Hart, a retiree who helped gather signatures to put the measure before voters in June 2010.
“I would hope that when you see somebody on the street or when you're talking to somebody, you will be able to feel sure they are here legally, whether they're Polish or German or Hispanic,” he said.
Though the Fremont ordinance differs significantly from the Arizona law, both provisions turn on one key question: How much authority do state or local governments have to take immigration law into their own hands?
Kris Kobach, the Kansas lawyer who is defending the ordinance on Fremont's behalf, said he was encouraged by Monday's ruling.
“It makes the City of Fremont's case even stronger,” he said.
Although the Supreme Court said Arizona lacked authority for many of its provisions, the majority decision makes it clear that federal immigration officials must answer status inquiries by state and local officials, Kobach said. That's a strong argument in Fremont's favor, he said.
Attorneys challenging the ordinance couldn't disagree more.
“Today the U.S. Supreme Court said loud and clear: This is an area where only the federal government has power,” said Alan Peterson, a Lincoln lawyer handling an American Civil Liberties Union challenge of the Fremont ordinance.
The Arizona decision most likely spells the end for the ordinance's housing provisions, said Shirley Mora James, a Lincoln lawyer working on a companion challenge filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Passed by petition drive after the City Council rejected it in a narrow vote in 2008, the ordinance calls for those seeking to rent housing in Fremont to register with the Police Department for an occupancy license. Police would use the information to run an immigration check of potential tenants. It would be illegal for landlords to provide housing to immigrants who lack authorization to be in this country.
The housing provisions were placed on hold after U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp rejected a key provision in February. In a decision being appealed to the 8th Circuit, she said requiring landlords to evict illegal immigrants ran counter to federal immigration policy.
The ordinance's other major requirement took effect it May. It requires that businesses with at least one employee use a federal system known as E-Verify to confirm workers' employment status.
The ordinance has had little measurable impact so far, community members said. The town's major employers already voluntarily used E-Verify before the ordinance was passed.
Members of Fremont's immigrant community and their supporters said the ordinance's cost is not just a matter of dollars and cents. Hispanic residents feel targeted and unwelcome, they said.
“I came here to work,” said Luis Canahui, a native of Guatemala who has lived in Fremont for 11 years.
Canahui became a citizen several years ago.
His move to the United States was sponsored by his father, who has been a citizen for many years. Canahui is president of Un Fremont con Dignidad — One Fremont with Dignity — an outreach group for the immigrant community.
“I like Fremont,” Canahui said, “but now it's changed, you know.”
Leslie Velez, who was born in the United States, graduated from Fremont High School and Nebraska Wesleyan University. Now 22, she lives in Omaha and doesn't plan to return to Fremont.
“I don't see myself living there any time in the future,” she said. “I don't see raising a family in that environment, even though it's a nice town.”
Her father, Alfredo Velez, moved to the United States from Mexico in 1985 and arrived in Fremont in 1998 to work at the Hormel meatpacking plant. He and his wife, Rocio, now own a small Hispanic grocery store.
Alfredo Velez plans to retire here, but he said the ordinance has made him more conscious of the town's divisions.
“You know, there's a lot of people, they don't like Hispanics,” he said. “They're never going to change how they think. That's how they are. I just talk to the people I know — they like me and they're nice.”
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