Scribner map

SCRIBNER, Neb. — Twenty-one miles down the road from here, Fremont made national news when voters approved an ordinance banning the “harboring” or employing of illegal immigrants.

Now Scribner, a farm town with a brick main street and 857 residents, is seeking to follow suit.

Quietly, with barely a ripple of publicity, the Scribner City Council voted unanimously on June 25 to give first-round approval to a similar ordinance designed to prohibit renting apartments or homes to immigrants in the country illegally, and to prohibit hiring such undocumented workers.

The move — which will take at least one more “yes” vote to go into effect — comes as this section of eastern Nebraska girds for an influx of construction workers and, eventually, employees of Costco’s massive chicken processing plant rising on the southeast edge of Fremont.

In addition, about 500 chicken houses will need to be built to produce the poultry.

The Costco plant eventually will employ 1,000 workers after it opens in late 2019, and already there are concerns about whether enough local workers will be found, and where they will live in rural communities that already are short on housing.

While a state labor study indicated that there should be plenty of potential employees already living in the region, officials interviewed said that the Costco plant will likely require many new residents, perhaps filling nearly half the jobs. For towns such as Scribner, which was 96 percent white according to the last census, the face of the community could change significantly.

From his office in Scribner, banker Martin Koopman said the community has no problem with legal immigrants but does not want those who are not. He questioned why more towns aren’t seeking to pass rules like Fremont’s.

“Why wouldn’t they do that? Every community should do that,” Koopman said.

Scribner Mayor Ken Thomas said he thinks the community is supportive of the ordinance but that a controversy is being stirred up by a local landlord who is in a dispute with the city over his project to convert an assisted living center into an apartment building. The town, he said, is not anti-Costco.

“I have not had one person come up to me and question what’s going on,” Thomas said, referring to the council’s recent vote.

But if the farm town adopts the ordinance, it will take a step few other communities have taken, because of the legal expenses, problems with enforcement and image problems that come with it, according to a national authority on such laws.

“If you’re in a town with a very tight budget, spending millions of dollars on legal bills for an ordinance is a big bite,” said Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute at the New York University School of Law. “And it has an impact on the reputation of a town — no one wants to be known as a xenophobic town.”

Danielle Conrad, the executive director of ACLU of Nebraska, said her organization would consider litigation, saying Scribner’s effort “invites racial profiling and risks increased harassment and discrimination.”

Meanwhile, Kris Kobach, a Kansas attorney who drafted Fremont’s ordinance, said he sees a new wave of communities, affected by illegal immigrants, considering what Scribner is doing.

In Fremont, officials say that the ordinance is quietly doing its job and that the community of 26,400 a half-hour northwest of Omaha is continuing to grow despite some negative publicity.

Since the housing portion of Fremont’s ordinance went into effect in 2014, nearly 5,000 “occupancy licenses” have been issued to people wishing to rent an apartment or home in the community.

On the license application for the $5 permit, persons must state whether they are in the U.S. legally. About 170 people since 2014 have said they are in the country illegally. But because of a Catch-22 with federal authorities, Fremont cannot take action against them or landlords because it has been unable, through the federal government, to confirm a person’s immigration status.

Fremont Mayor Scott Getzschman said that despite that, the ordinance carries an “intimidation factor” that has made it effective. The city hired a legal secretary to educate landlords about the ordinance, and to instruct employers, who, as part of the local law, must use a federal E-verify database to affirm that job applicants are in the country legally.

“I think it’s doing what it set out to do,” Getzschman said.

Initially, he said, some people told him they were avoiding visiting or shopping in Fremont, but as time has passed, the controversy has simmered down, and the community has focused on growing and pushing back on some negative publicity — including recent stories by Slate and Katie Couric about “white anxiety” and its controversial law.

“We don’t dwell on it and don’t focus on it,” the mayor said. “We do enforce it.”

Fremont was part of a push, fueled by frustration with inaction by the federal government, that led a handful of communities a decade ago to pass local ordinances seeking to ban illegal immigrants from living or working there. The ordinances sparked costly and lengthy legal battles in most communities, as well as sharp divisions over race and immigration. Fremont’s, for instance, was first suggested a decade ago but wasn’t adopted until voters approved it in 2010. Because of court challenges, it didn’t go into effect until 2014.

Since 2012, the city has spent more than $600,000 to implement its ordinance, with the bulk used for the new legal secretary and about $111,000 spent on defending against a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately decided not to hear the ACLU’s appeal, thus affirming the legality of Fremont’s ordinance.

Fremont is unique in that respect, said Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute. Federal circuit courts struck down similar local ordinances passed in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, and Farmers Branch, Texas, he said, creating a legal “split” nationally that acts as another hurdle for similar ordinances.

While at least some Scribner residents expressed fears that illegal immigrants will flock to their community because of Fremont’s ordinance, it doesn’t appear to have inspired other towns to consider similar steps.

Calls to some towns near Fremont didn’t find any that were seeking to follow Scribner’s path.

“It really hasn’t been talked about (here),” said one local official, Roxanne Meyer, the city clerk in Hooper, which is 14 miles north of Fremont.

In Scribner, the immigration issue has come to a head, in part, because a local landlord has begun converting an empty assisted-living center into small rental apartments that he says he will rent to anybody, including workers associated with the Costco plant.

Derek Wallen, who owns eight rental homes in Scribner, Hooper and Fremont, recently bought two assisted-living units, and plans to convert them into 26 individual apartments.

He maintains that the city is trying to impose new requirements on his project that will make it financially unfeasible. Those include requiring individual electric meters for every apartment — which Wallen said has cost him an extra $100,000 — and requiring an addition to his concrete parking lot. The city has also shut off power to his buildings, which he said has made it more difficult to get them ready for occupancy.

“It’s insane,” Wallen said. “They’re trying to make me spend money and not open it.”

Jim McNally of Neligh, the city attorney for Scribner, disputed that, saying the requirements were already in existence, and steps were taken to make sure he complies with city codes.

The attorney, however, did say that an ordinance passed by the city council to require Wallen to obtain a conditional use permit had to be rescinded by the council because there was not proper notice of the meeting at which it was passed.

Wallen said actions were taken against him because Scribner does not want migrant workers, illegal or not, living in the town. Already, a hotel in Beemer, 21 miles north of Scribner, has been purchased for a work crew that will build the chicken houses. Wallen said another housing unit in West Point, Nebraska, was bought for the same reason.

Thomas, the mayor, said Scribner is not “anti-Costco” or against its workforce.

Koopman, the banker, said town leaders are concerned that Wallen won’t keep up his property. The city, he said, favors development that will “enhance” the community.

Meanwhile, down the road in Fremont, some are working to move forward.

The Greater Fremont Development Council is forming a Diversity and Inclusion Committee, whose work will include highlighting businesses that have benefited from a diverse workforce. The organization has also raised more than $1 million, via a state grant and local donations, to build more middle class housing in Dodge County, which may open up more places to live for the Costco workforce.

Garry Clark, executive director of the council, said rural communities cannot exist without an inclusive attitude, which has been true since the first immigrants — Germans, Swedish and Irish — arrived in pioneer days.

“It’s just really clear that we can’t grow and sustain these communities without people who will fill these jobs,” Clark said.

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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