The controversial housing ordinance targeting illegal immigrants in Fremont, Nebraska, has turned out to be toothless.

The federal government is not providing city officials with the immigration status of renters suspected of being in the country illegally. And without the information, no rental housing licenses have been yanked.

Fremont’s mayor says a fix is in the works.

During the year since the ordinance went into effect, nearly 1,300 people have paid $5 for occupancy licenses to move into rental housing. The application requires people to declare whether or not they are U.S. citizens.

At least 35 renters indicated that they were not U.S. citizens, so the city asked federal officials to determine whether the renters are legally in the country. The government did not provide answers, saying it needed more information about the renters.

Fremont’s housing ordinance, however, prohibits the city from collecting and providing more information. The result is a governmental Catch-22: A prospective renter fills out an application, but no documents are required to verify the information.

Mayor Scott Getzschman said local officials are enforcing the ordinance as far as they can.

“We are following the letter of the law and doing what we have to do,” he said. “The only thing not being done is verification.”

Kris Kobach, the Kansas attorney who has helped Fremont and other cities across the nation shepherd illegal-immigrant laws through the electoral and legal systems, is working on fixing the problem, Getzschman said. The solution would not involve changing the ordinance, he said, though he could not provide more details.

Kobach could not be reached for comment. City Attorney Paul Payne also was unavailable for comment.

The housing issue has festered in Fremont since 2008, when the City Council first considered an ordinance aimed at banishing illegal immigrants from the community.

Two years later voters approved the law after a citizen petition put it on the ballot. In addition to establishing an occupancy license, the ordinance called for employers to verify the legal status of new employees. Enforcement of the housing sections were delayed during court challenges.

The matter returned to the ballot in February 2014 after the City Council asked voters to amend housing provisions out of the ordinance. They said the ordinance tarnished Fremont’s image, burdened taxpayers with enforcement costs and threatened the city with the loss of millions of dollars in federal funds. Voters overwhelmingly said no.

Enforcement started April 10, 2014.

The latest obstacle surprised John Wiegert of Fremont, who helped defeat the attempt to eliminate the housing portions of the ordinance last year. Wiegert said he assumed that the ordinance was quietly working.

“I’ve not heard anyone complain,” he said. “My job was to get out the vote, and then I was done with it.”

Fremont voters approved the ordinance to take a stand against illegal immigration into the United States. The law prohibits “the harboring of illegal aliens or hiring of unauthorized aliens.”

Under the ordinance, anyone who submits a completed application and pays the modest fee receives an occupancy license. When a renter declares not to be a U.S. citizen, the Fremont Police Department is to ask the federal government to determine whether the person is lawfully in the country. The ordinance says the request goes to the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) program, operated by a branch of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Getzschman said the city has been told that the basic name, address, date of birth and country of citizenship information included on the occupancy license application isn’t enough for federal officials to make a determination about the renter’s citizenship.

“Our form doesn’t require a Social Security number or driver’s license number,” Getzschman said. “There’s no additional documentation. That’s why the verification process is not being used.”

As of roughly six months ago — the latest data Getzschman had seen — about 35 occupancy licenses had been issued to people who said they were not U.S. citizens at the time, the mayor said.

“We sent them in. They sent them back,” he said of the paperwork exchange between Fremont police and federal officials.

The ordinance states that if the federal response is inconclusive or tentative, local officials are to take no action unless a final verification is received. The ordinance also prohibits local officials from attempting to independently verify anyone’s immigration status.

Ron Tillery, executive director of the Fremont Area Chamber of Commerce, said the community seems to have moved on from the contentious issue. The chamber opposed the ordinance’s housing provisions.

“If I hadn’t been reminded of the (anniversary), it would have come and gone without me taking notice,” Tillery said. “By and large, I think that’s the sentiment of the community.”

However, City Councilwoman Jennifer Bixby said emotions continue to run high on both sides of the issue.

“It still stirs up passion,” she said. “There is still a lot of divide in the town.”

Still, the occupancy license requirement has caused no hiccups in rental activity during the past 12 months, said Norma Hass, leasing agent for Don Peterson & Associates. Hass handles 236 rental units.

“It’s just a piece of paper,” she said. “We make sure before giving them the key to the apartment that they have an occupation license, and we put it on file. It’s that simple.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1127, david.hendee@owh.com

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