FREMONT, Neb. — Words of anger, disgust and disdain peppered the City Council here as it took the first step Tuesday night toward possibly revising a controversial illegal immigrant housing ordinance.
Council members also heard a few encouraging words from those who want to roll back the divisive measure.
John Wiegert, who helped spearhead a petition drive that led to voters approving the ordinance, reflected the majority mood of the crowd of more than 100 when he said the proposed amendment before the council disgusted him.
“It's despicable,'' he said. “You guys should be ashamed of yourselves.''
Wiegert threatened a recall drive against those who vote for the change.
At issue is that portion of a 2010 ordinance that prohibits renting to those who are living illegally in the United States. The ordinance also requires rental licenses for landlords.
Opponents of the housing provisions said the issue has given Fremont a black eye, burdened local taxpayers with enforcement costs and threatened the city with the loss of millions of dollars in federal community development grants.
Supporters, however, said the council should not repeal the voter-approved measure.
After the Fremont City Council declined to pass a nearly identical measure in 2008, voters approved the ordinance that bans hiring or renting to people who can't prove that they are in the country legally.
The city has been enforcing only the sections of the ordinance that require qualifying businesses to use the federal E-Verify system to confirm that new workers are in the country legally.
No landlords or tenants have any obligations under the ordinance now. The issue has been tied up in court challenges.
Fremont is a city of 26,000 about 20 miles northwest of Omaha's western suburbs. The city's Hispanic population has increased since 2000, and Hispanics now account for 11.9 percent of the city's population.
Maggie Zarate, a third-generation American of Hispanic heritage, said the ordinance has fueled fear. She said her family has suffered insults from those who assume that they are not citizens.
“Can I just have my children step outside my house and be able to play outside?'' she asked.
Members of Fremont's business community said the ordinance is wounding the city.
Banker Scott Meister, a Fremont native and a member of the Greater Fremont Development Council, said the measure is keeping the city from achieving its full potential.
He said the ordinance creates a perception that Fremont is a community of prejudiced and intolerant people.
Ron Tillery, executive director of the Fremont Area Chamber of Commerce, said the group's board recently voted to reaffirm its position that the ordinance's housing provisions should be removed.
The chamber represents nearly 600 businesses that employ more than 10,000 people.
Cecilia Harry, who moved to Fremont from Kansas two months ago to take an economic development job, said the community attracted her, but she was concerned about the immigration measure.
“The ordinance was like a broken window on a dream home,'' she said.
Harry said she is concerned that many other young people faced with similar choices would not give Fremont a second look because of the ordinance.
State Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont said the issue is more about listening to voters than about illegal immigration. Janssen, a Republican candidate for governor, has been a strong supporter of the ordinance.
“I want to warn you against this,'' he said. “It's just not right to do it this way. If you want to do something, throw it back to the people.''
The council adjourned without comment. The second of three possible readings of the amendment is set for Nov. 12.
Timeline of Fremont immigrant housing ordinance
July 2008 — On a 5-4 vote, Fremont City Council rejects proposed ordinance addressing illegal immigration.
August 2008 — Residents initiate successful petition drive to force a special election on ordinance to prohibit the harboring and hiring of illegal immigrants.
March 2009 — City files lawsuit to prevent special election, saying the proposal is unconstitutional.
April 2009 — Court rules against the city and says the special election should be held. City appeals.
April 2010 — Nebraska Supreme Court affirms District Dourt decision allowing the special election.
June 2010 — Voters approve ordinance by 14 percentage points. Effective date is July 29.
July 2010 — American Civil Liberties Union and Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund each file federal lawsuits against the city on behalf of several plaintiffs. The lawsuits allege the ordinance pre-empts federal law and violates the federal Fair Housing Act. City Council agrees not to implement the ordinance until lawsuits are resolved.
February 2012 — A federal judge throws out portions of the ordinance involving housing and upholds employment provisions that prohibit hiring unauthorized immigrants and requiring employers to use federal E-Verify program. Plaintiffs and city both appeal. March 2012 — Employment provisions of the ordinance go into effect.
June 2013 — A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the ordinance and reverses the earlier ruling that parts of the measure violate federal law. Oct. 15 — Fair Housing Center of Nebraska-Iowa briefs the City Council on its obligations to counteract discriminatory effects of the ordinance and of the potential liability for ignoring its duty.
Oct. 17— 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denies a petition for the full court to rehear the case.
Oct. 25 — Fremont City Attorney Paul Payne says Councilman Todd Hoppe has asked him to prepare an amendment removing housing sections of the ordinance.