FREMONT, Neb. — The four-year journey back to the polling booth Tuesday has Fremont residents weary and exasperated.
Voters will go to the polls in a special election to decide whether to strike provisions of a controversial ordinance designed to prevent illegal immigrants from renting housing.
Those on both sides of the divisive issue expect a close decision.
Ginger Rosenthal, owner of the Blue Bottle Coffeehouse on downtown's Main Street, said the long-running controversy is hurting the suburban community of 26,000 northwest of Omaha.
“All people see and hear is the negative,” she said. “We're a town rich in diversity and offerings. We need to settle this and focus on what we have.”
Residents who canvassed the city four years ago to bring the ordinance to the ballot — and then won the special election — say they are frustrated and angry at having to rally their forces again to defend the local law. They say a local law is needed because federal immigration laws are not being enforced.
The issue has festered in Fremont since the City Council first considered an ordinance aimed at banishing illegal immigrants from the community in 2008. Two years later, the town thrust itself to the forefront of the national immigration policy debate when a citizen petition drive put the issue on the ballot, and voters approved the measure by 14 percentage points in 2010.
The matter ended up back on the ballot after the City Council once again sent the ordinance to voters in November.
County elections officials expect sizable turnout
Dodge County elections officials are preparing for another big voter turnout Tuesday for Fremont's election to amend an illegal immigrant housing ordinance. Two years ago, when the ordinance was up for approval, 45.2 percent of registered voters went to the polls. There were 489 early voters in 2010. As of Friday, 647 people had picked up ballots for early voting, said Sharon Neuhalfen, deputy election commissioner. Nearly 240 people registered to vote between Nov. 13, the day after the City Council asked voters to amend the ordinance, and the Jan. 31 registration deadline. Early voters may cast ballots until 8 p.m. Tuesday. The polls will be open that day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fremont has 15,119 registered voters. — David Hendee
The housing provisions of the regulation have been tied up in court challenges and never enforced. The only provision of the ordinance enforced so far is one that requires businesses to use the federal E-Verify system to certify the legal status of new employees. It would not be affected if voters approve a repeal of the housing section.
Ron Tillery, executive director of the Fremont Area Chamber of Commerce, said the housing provisions could inflict a lot of damage on the city.
Tillery said the chamber board understands the frustration that many Fremont residents feel regarding immigration, but believes the ordinance presents an unwarranted risk to taxpayers to pay the bills for defending the ordinance against potential lawsuits. He said it divides the community, erects barriers to future development and diverts attention from constructive enterprises.
The ordinance's housing provisions aren't needed because the employment verification requirements are effective in stanching the flow — whatever the size — of undocumented workers into Fremont, Tillery said.
The chamber's position should not be interpreted to mean approval of illegal hiring or harboring of undocumented people, he said, but rather that city government lacks the authority to tackle the nation's immigration problems.
“The federal government says it's their job, and whether we agree they're doing a good job or not, it is their job and we should not interfere in that,” Tillery said.
The ordinance's housing provisions would require a new renter to obtain a $5 permit. The ordinance also requires rental licenses for landlords.
City Councilwoman Jennifer Bixby said the housing provisions are flawed.
“We cannot enforce federal law,” she said.
Dawn Wiegert disagrees. Wiegert, a substitute staffer in the Fremont schools, is an active member of Our Vote Should Count, an organization fighting against repealing the housing provisions.
“As a city, we need to take a stand,” she said. “A lot of other towns are watching what we're doing. Immigration laws are federal laws, but they're not being enforced. We live in a state and town where people want to address it.”
John Wiegert, Dawn Wiegert's brother-in-law and another leader of the group that supports the ordinance, said townspeople he encounters ask why the community needs to vote again on the issue.
“It's a good question,” he said. “We petitioned the government. We did it the right way. Now the City Council says it doesn't like the results, and 'Let's have a do-over.' ”
Paul Von Behren, a landlord with eight rental units in Fremont and an Our Vote Should Count organizer, said money motivates those who want to amend the ordinance.
Proposal aims to shield initiative measures from early reversal
Legislation proposed by State Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont would prohibit attempts to overturn initiative measures — such as Fremont's controversial illegal immigrant housing ordinance — until they have been fully implemented. Janssen's Legislative Bill 1011 also would require that voter-approved initiatives not be subject to amendment or repeal for two years after passage. Current state law sets a one-year standard. A former Fremont city councilman, Janssen said he introduced the bill out of concern that some elected officials don't listen to constituents. Fremont voters approved by 57 percent to 43 percent the ordinance that, among other things, restricted illegal immigrants from renting housing. The provision has never been enforced. The City Council is asking voters to amend the ordinance to strip out the housing provision. “You can't get a clearer blueprint of what the people want than a 57-43 vote,” Janssen said. “I've had a lot of legislation pass that I didn't agree with, but I understand the democratic process, and you live to fight another day. This seems to be ignoring the people's vote.” The bill has been heard by the Urban Affairs Committee. — David Hendee
“Businesses prey on cheap, illegal labor for profit,” he said.
Opponents of amending the ordinance allege foul play, scare tactics, half-truths and untruths by those hoping to repeal the housing restrictions. They cite as an example assertions that the ordinance would require residents of assisted-living facilities to buy a $5 permit every time they move to a different room in the facility.
“That's a disgusting tactic,” Von Behren said.
Von Behren said officials of the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C., say these rooms, like college dormitories, hotels and homeless shelters, would be exempted from the ordinance.
The ordinance defines a rental unit as a single residence with living facilities that include space for sleeping, eating, cooking, bathing and sanitation. Von Behren said nursing homes don't include all of these features in a room and are not zoned as residential, but as licensed medical facilities.
Supporters of amending the ordinance say nursing homes could fall under the requirements.
Like those who want to keep the housing provisions, those who favor the changes quickly organized after the City Council sent the ordinance back to the voters. They formed Fremont YES! and Fremont Taxpayers for Jobs.
Virginia Meyer, who helped organize Fremont YES!, said her family bought a house and moved to the city about 18 months ago.
“We're invested in the community and we want to put down roots,” she said. “I think the housing ordinance will be ineffective and very costly in enforcement.”
Angelia Patino, 18, a senior at Fremont High School, has watched and felt the community conflict since she was in middle school. The Latina daughter of U.S. citizens, she has lived in Fremont since she was 3 years old and plans to study business and political science at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
“My family has heard a lot of racist and hurtful things,” she said. “It affected how much we went out in public places.”
She plans to vote to amend the ordinance.
Fremont's Hispanic population has increased since 2000; Hispanics now account for 11.9 percent of the city's population.
Proponents built a well-funded coalition of businesses, civil rights organizations and others. Their two campaign committees raised nearly $71,000 in cash or in-kind services during the six weeks ending in late January, according to Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission records.
The money has paid for yard signs and billboards, and print, radio and cable TV advertising.
Those who want to keep the ordinance say they have relied on a grass-roots campaign largely fueled by donations of $5, $10 and $20 to produce yard signs and door hangers. They've raised more than $6,000, said Deanna Schlenz of Our Vote Should Count.
“Tuesday, we'll see if the one with the most money wins,” she said. “The other side has a lot of outside donors but they can't vote. Our donors can.”
The chamber recently conducted a telephone survey of 250 residents who are very likely to vote to sample public opinion on the ordinance. Tillery said he expects the election results to be close.
“Everything we've seen so far indicates that it may be decided by a few hundred votes,” he said. “There are strong opinions on both sides of the issue. The polar opposites are fairly entrenched in their beliefs.”