Report — From the February 2013 issue

This Land Is Not Your Land

Deciding who belongs in America

( 4 of 11 )

Bob Warner is in his eighties, but he retains the booming voice that served him well on the Fremont city council for twenty years. During that time, Warner told me, he had felt powerless against the demographic shift his town was experiencing. He watched Mayor Skip Edwards kowtow to Hormel from the moment he took office in 1988, even as the company steadily increased its Hispanic workforce. Warner was convinced that most of the new workers were in the United States illegally — an assertion he supported by pointing to the number of Spanish-speaking adults in Fremont. “How could a person be a twenty-one-year-old adult and have no knowledge of the English language at all?” he asked me. “That’s all bullshit.”

At the city-council meeting in which Warner proposed his ordinance, city attorney Dean Skokan agreed to work on the legislation but warned the council that similar laws were facing stiff — and expensive — constitutional challenges. The ACLU had elsewhere argued that such ordinances were preempted by federal immigration law, that they lacked sufficient safeguards to protect constitutional property rights, and that they violated the Fair Housing Act. “I’m not telling you this can’t be done,” Skokan said. “I’m telling you it’s going to be very difficult.”

Skokan had a draft ready for its first public reading on the evening of July 8. Just before four o’clock that day, Warner said, he was tipped off that the entire second shift at Hormel had called in sick; employees were carpooling to the Fremont Municipal Building. By the time Warner reached the council chambers, the room was nearly filled with Hormel workers — and the police had been dispatched to maintain order.

The city clerk read aloud from the bill, which had been modeled on similar measures provided by the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), where Kris Kobach was legal counsel. The members of the city council announced that they would hear constituents’ comments at this meeting and two more to come before making a decision. They heard first from several landlords, who said that because as many as a third of all renters in Fremont were Hispanic, it would be impractical to check everyone’s status, and that trying would lead to the targeting of Hispanics.

Warner responded angrily. “Illegal is illegal,” he said, “and it has nothing to do with discrimination.” Several ordinance supporters in the crowd began pointing around the room: “There’s an illegal . . . There’s an illegal . . . There’s an illegal . . . ” The atmosphere was so tense that when a group of Hispanics started for the door during a recess, a police officer insisted on escorting them to their cars for their protection. Before the meeting was adjourned, Warner and Skokan scheduled a second reading of the ordinance for July 29.

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