Scribner immigration protest

Protesters gather outside a meeting of the Scribner City Council to oppose an ordinance that would bar illegal immigrants from getting housing or jobs in town. Ultimately, the council decided to put the issue to the voters.

SCRIBNER, Neb. — The City Council here on Monday night voted 4-0 to let local voters decide whether or not to adopt an ordinance that seeks to ban illegal immigrants from renting or working in this farming community.

The ordinance, patterned after one approved in nearby Fremont, had been up for second-round approval by the council.

But council members instead decided to put the controversial and divisive issue on the November ballot.

The meeting grew testy at times, as opponents and proponents of the ordinance traded comments. Some, mostly not residents of Scribner, said passage would be a black eye for the community and would brand it as off-limits to immigrants and people who look and talk differently.

But local residents who supported the idea disputed that, with one saying he was “offended” by the suggestion that Scribner would look “ignorant and narrow-minded” if it passed such a law. Others said the issue was about only immigrants entering the country illegally.

“We will be more than welcoming to any immigrant family as long as they come legally,” said Sally Thomas, whose husband, Ken, is Scribner’s mayor.

Members of the council said that putting off the vote until November will give residents more time to get educated on the complicated and emotional issue of immigration. They also said it was clear that some people opposed the idea, so it was best to let voters decide.

“We need to let people have a say in this,” said council member Mike Baumert.

Last month, the council voted unanimously to give first-round approval to the ordinance, which is patterned after one adopted in Fremont. The U.S. Supreme Court decided against hearing an appeal, by the ACLU of Nebraska, of Fremont’s ordinance, thus upholding it.

But two other U.S. district courts have struck down similar ordinances, leaving a split in the legal standing of such local laws.

The Fremont law requires new residents to obtain a $5 city license before renting an apartment or home. It requires people to attest whether they are in the country legally or illegally.

The ordinance also requires local employers to confirm, via a federal database, if an applicant is in the country legally.

The federal government has not assisted Fremont in confirming a person’s legal status, leaving the community without the ability to enforce its ordinance.

Still, the city’s mayor recently told The World-Herald that the ordinance is working because it has an intimidation factor for those seeking the city license.

At Monday night’s meeting, representatives of the ACLU of Nebraska and the Immigrant Legal Center of Omaha urged Scribner not to pass its ordinance or put it on the ballot.

Rose Godinez of the ACLU said that the federal databases used by Fremont to affirm legal status are often inaccurate and that requiring employers to use the E-Verify system is a burden.

Derek Wallen, a Scribner landlord, said that passing such an ordinance would be a waste of time because people can easily put a fake name on the form to obtain a license to rent housing.

“It seems like a whole lot of hoopla to me ... and at the end of the day, you can’t verify things,” Wallen said.

But others at the meeting said that providing proof of immigration status, or verifying status through the federal databases, was not an undue burden.

Wallen is seeking to convert an assisted living center in Scribner into apartments, which has helped stoke fears that it will be housing for immigrants in this mostly white farm town of 857 people, about 60 miles northwest of Omaha.

Also raising concern is the opening of a huge Costco chicken processing plant in nearby Fremont, which, most officials say, will have to draw employees from outside of Nebraska, thus sparking an influx of immigrants.

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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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