FREMONT, Neb. — Angered by a recent influx of Hispanic workers attracted by jobs at local meatpacking plants, voters will decide today whether to ban hiring or renting property to illegal immigrants.
It's the culmination of a two-year fight that saw proponents collect enough signatures to put the question to a public vote. If the ordinance is approved, the community of 25,000 could face a long and costly court battle. Either way, the emotions stirred up won't settle quickly.
"Even if we say 'no' … we still need to say, 'How do we get along with each other now?' " said Kristin Ostrom, who helps oversee a campaign against the measure.
Across the nation, people have expressed anger about — and demanded action against — the poor enforcement of federal laws to prevent illegal immigration. A law recently introduced in Arizona requires police to question people on their immigration status if there's a "reasonable suspicion" they are illegal.
In Fremont, the proposed ordinance requires potential renters to apply for a license and city officials to validate they are in the country legally before issuing a license allowing them to rent. Businesses will be required to check employees against the federal E-Verify database to ensure their legal status to work.
Fremont's Hispanic population has surged in the past two decades, boosted by recruitment to the Fremont Beef and Hormel plants. About 165 Hispanic people — both legal and illegal — lived in Fremont in 1990. The total surged to 1,085 in 2000, according to census expert David Drozd at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He says an estimated 2,060 Hispanics lived there last year.
In May, Fremont recorded just 4.9 percent unemployment, in line with the statewide rate and significantly lower than the national average of 9.7 percent.
Supporters of the proposed ordinance worry that illegal immigrants could be a drain on community resources.
Those resources include spending on education and medical care, said Jerry Hart, a Fremont resident who petitioned for the vote. He said the ordinance would help curb that spending and protect jobs for legal residents. He said it would also end the divisiveness that's taken over the community.
Ron Tillery, executive director of the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the measure, said businesses are concerned that the E-Verify system isn't reliable and that they would be subject to fines if forced to rely on it.
He also pointed out that the main targets of the ordinance — the Fremont Beef and Hormel plants — are not covered by it because they are located outside the city.