The City of Fremont is about to revisit a controversial ordinance designed to restrict illegal immigrants from renting housing.
Tonight, the nine-member City Council is scheduled to take its first look at an amendment to repeal the part of the ordinance that prohibits renting to those living in the United States illegally and requires rental licenses for landlords.
Councilman Todd Hoppe requested the amendment to the ordinance, which was passed more than three years ago.
Mayor Scott Getzschman said the divisive issue has given Fremont a national black eye, burdens local taxpayers with enforcement costs and threatens the city with the loss of millions of dollars in federal community development grants.
Supporters of the ordinance, however, say it would be unusual for the council to repeal a voter-approved measure.
Kris Kobach, the Kansas attorney who has been the lead lawyer defending the city in court challenges, said he could not recall a case in which a city council repealed an ordinance enacted in a popular vote by the initiative process.
“It would be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,'' he said Monday.
Kobach has argued the case before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which as recently as Oct. 17 rejected a request to rehear the case. Kobach is Kansas secretary of state and counsel for the Immigration Law Reform Institute, the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
“That would be a pretty unusual move to override the will of the people,'' he said.
After the City Council declined to pass a nearly identical measure, Fremont voters in a 2010 special election approved an ordinance that bans hiring or renting to people who can't prove they are in the country legally.
Fremont is a city of about 26,000 people about 20 miles northwest of Omaha's western suburbs. The city's Hispanic population has nearly tripled, rising from 1,085 in 2000 (4.3 percent of the population) to 3,149 in 2010 (11.9 percent).
Shirley Mora James, a Lincoln attorney who is representing opponents of the ordinance, said she had not seen the amendment.
“But if they're considering an amendment that would not discriminate against people based on their citizenship or nationality, that's welcome news,'' she said.
ACLU Nebraska, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and other organizations have opposed the ordinance.
The city is enforcing only the sections of the ordinance requiring qualifying businesses to use the federal E-Verify system to confirm that new workers are in the country legally.
Kobach has recommended that the city delay enforcement of the occupancy license requirements until pending appeals are decided. No landlords or tenants have any obligations under the ordinance now.
Getzschman said the ordinance has created a perception that Fremont is “a hateful and discriminatory community.''
City officials know of at least one business that decided not to move to the community after learning of the ordinance, he said.
“We have no idea how many other companies have not looked at Fremont because of the ordinance,'' the mayor said.
Getzschman said the Nebraska Department of Economic Development has forwarded to the city two letters from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development indicating that federal officials are watching Fremont “very, very closely'' to ensure that fair housing guidelines are followed.
Fremont has received about $7.1 million in the past 15 years in federal Community Development Block Grants from HUD. The city uses the funds for housing revitalization, downtown improvements and economic development purposes.
Enforcing the ordinance has cost Fremont about $1.5 million and could run up an equal tab over the next year, the mayor said.
“The ordinance is an economic burden to the citizens of Fremont,'' he said. “It's really a federal issue. It's difficult for the council, I believe, to force the citizens of the city to pay to enforce the ordinance.''
A field investigator and a legal secretary were hired last year to help the city ensure that businesses don't employ illegal immigrants.
The city has established a defense fund to help pay for legal expenses associated with the ordinance.
In February 2012, a federal judge threw out portions of the ordinance involving housing. A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ordinance in June and reversed the earlier ruling that parts of the measure violated federal law. Earlier this month, the appeals court denied a petition for the full court to rehear the case.
Challengers have 90 days to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
The council will give the amendment second and third readings in November before voting on it, Getzschman said.
Tonight's meeting begins at 7 on the second floor of the Municipal Building.
Correction: Shirley Mora James' name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.