FREMONT, Neb. — In this city of 25,000, far from any international border, the fight over illegal immigration has boiled over.
Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
This is ordinarily a serene place with polite politics and votes that sail through City Hall 8 to 0. But in a special election Monday, residents will decide whether to ban businesses from hiring illegal immigrants and bar landlords from renting to them. Residents demanded the vote, fighting off challenges by some of their elected leaders all the way to the State Supreme Court.
The election has opened a rare and raw divide. There are awkward silences for some who fear offending their neighbors (whose position they cannot be certain of), and, for others, volleys of suspicion.
Wanda Kotas, who pushed for the special election, said her family’s cat, Mr. Sippi, was killed by a pellet gun not long after her efforts, an act she suspects is related. Kristin Ostrom, who has spoken against the referendum, said a rock was heaved through her front window, an old barbecue grill was dumped at her doorstep, and, this week, an e-mail message arrived promising in red letters to “shed blood” to take back the country. And Alfredo Velez, who once worked at one of Fremont’s meatpacking plants and now owns a Mexican grocery, received an anonymous letter accusing him of harboring illegal immigrants, and said someone screamed at him on these neatly kept streets: “Go back to Mexico!”
The Hispanic population, while growing, still makes up less than 10 percent of Fremont, yet some say they blame illegal immigrants for what they see as a rise in crime here, the loss of good jobs for local residents and a shift in the culture.
Some complain about shoppers speaking Spanish at the Wal-Mart, businesses with phone messages saying “Press 1 for English,” and the need for two interpreters last fall at the annual “kindergarten round-up” where children meet their teachers.
Perhaps these are ordinary growing pains for Midwestern cities like Fremont, anchored by meatpacking plants with many immigrant workers, some of whom residents here suspect of being in this country illegally.
But the struggle has taken an unusual turn. After Fremont’s political leaders rejected an ordinance intended to keep illegal immigrants out, residents fought back and insisted, finally getting approval in the Nebraska Supreme Court to take the matter straight tovoters.
This is a legally complicated realm given the federal role in handling immigration; a lawsuit is all but certain if it passes. In other places where such immigration laws have been pondered (and often contested later), state lawmakers and local governing bodies have usually made the call, not citizens by referendum.
“In this very quiet little town where this hasn’t been an issue, it’s uncomfortable,” said Michelle Knapp, who opposes the anti-illegal immigrant law but acknowledges that she has at times only whispered her view. “You don’t know what people are listening.”
The battle began two years ago when a City Council member suggested that the city should take on illegal immigration. As in other towns, leaders here said they were frustrated by what they viewed as a failure by federal authorities to manage the problem.
By July 2008, a second hearing on the City Council’s proposal drew such a crowd that the meeting was moved to the high school auditorium (for the first time in memory) and the large crowd (under the watch of the police) voiced pointed views on all sides. The City Council waived plans for another hearing and instead voted, 4 to 4. Donald B. Edwards, the longtime mayor, gave an emotional speech, then voted no, to cheers and hoots.
“Everyone including myself is strongly against illegals,” Mr. Edwards told the crowd. “That’s not the issue.” Every legal mind he consulted led him to believe that immigration was a federal matter and that city action would lead to costly litigation. “I can’t change the law.”
This 1850s-era railroad and farming town, about 30 miles northwest of Omaha, included 165 Hispanic residents in 1990 by some estimates. The number is closer to 2,000 now. No one really knows how many illegal immigrants live here, but peoples’ claims about statistics vary wildly.
Dean Skokan, the city attorney, who spoke on behalf of city officials who he said were barred by statute from voicing opinions on city time regarding ballot questions, says crime has risen over time. But he says he knows of no data compiled here on crimes by ethnicity or national origin.
But that is little comfort to residents like Jerry Hart, a retired Internal Revenue Serviceworker who recalls a time when Fremont’s doors did not need locks.
The area’s meatpacking plants — including Hormel, the largest employer and a presence since 1947 — look different, he said.
“How can you be against following the law,” said Mr. Hart, who spent months helping to collect more than 4,000 signatures to put the question on the ballot.
If the population changes have shifted the way Fremont feels, so has the coming anti-illegal-immigration referendum. Hispanic residents say they once felt welcomed here — or, at least, not noticed — but the increasingly loud political fight, they say, seems to have changed the tone.
“I know what they’re thinking when they look at me: Am I legal? Am I illegal?” said Luis Canahui, who came here from Guatemala. “I can feel it.”
A woman who asked not to be identified because her legal status has run out grew tearful at what Fremont had once felt like to her. “I like this town, but this is the place for my kids, not for me anymore,” she said.
Opponents of the immigration law here nearly always cite practical considerations — the likely cost of litigation, above all — as the reason to reject it. One television spot, playing up the costs, shows a blank check signed by “Citizens of Fremont” and a narrator’s booming voice: “Say no to needless spending! Say no to cuts in community services!”
City officials have said the cost of fighting court challenges — presumably, claims that the law would improperly infringe on federal authority — would probably run into the millions. Laws in towns like Hazleton, Pa., and Farmers Branch, Tex., remain in court, and other cities have, faced with legal fights, repealed laws or dropped plans for them.
Fremont’s proposal, which was written with help from an author of Arizona’s new anti-immigration law, would require Fremont businesses to use a federal database, E-Verify, to check new employees’ information, and landlords to rent only to those who get a new city occupancy license (for $5) after turning over information to the police.
Skeptics, like Les Leech, the president of the Fremont Beef Company, said plants here already use E-Verify, but that does not stop those using stolen Social Security numbers. In March, immigration officials arrested 17 workers from Fremont Beef. “This ordinance will not change the complexion of this county one bit,” Mr. Leech said, “because E-Verify doesn’t work.”
Oddly enough, the meatpacking plants, including Hormel, are just outside city limits, and would not be subject to the new law.
Supporters say it does not matter. “We have to start somewhere,” said John Wiegert, a resident. “Hiding under your desk in a city office isn’t going to help.”