Report — From the February 2013 issue
- Current Issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Report — From the February 2013 issue
Five days a week, after his last batch of untrimmed hams has been deboned, injected with a sodium solution, and sent down the line to be cooked, Raul Vazquez walks out of the Hormel plant on the outskirts of Fremont, Nebraska, and crosses the street to the employee parking lot. He drives west along U.S. Route 30 for the better part of an hour, paralleling the Union Pacific’s tracks and the Platte River. Finally, he arrives at the town of Schuyler, where he and his wife, Miguela, run a small liquor store. Until a few years ago, Vazquez and his family lived close to the plant in Fremont, but then the town changed in ways that made it impossible for them to stay.
In the past twenty years, roughly 3,000 Hispanics have arrived in Fremont — an increase from 0.7 percent to nearly 12 percent of the total population. Latino immigrants have saved the economies of the towns of northeast Nebraska from ruin, but many older residents feel threatened by these new arrivals. Spots on the line at Hormel were once the most coveted jobs in the area, but now they are occupied largely by undocumented immigrants willing to work twice as fast for lower pay. The workers who got pushed aside, many of them second- or third-generation Hormel employees, are angry.
In May 2008, the Fremont City Council, following the lead of several towns around the country, proposed a law imposing penalties on businesses that hired and landlords who rented to anyone who could not provide proof of citizenship. Similar ordinances have been thrown out by the courts for infringing on federal authority, but a few have survived — and nearly all of those were written with the aid of Kris Kobach, a former Department of Justice attorney who, under John Ashcroft, coauthored a memo contending that local and state police could arrest undocumented aliens for violating immigration law. Since leaving the Justice Department in 2003, Kobach has advanced this doctrine by arguing that state and local governments have “inherent authority” to enforce federal mandates. On this controversial legal premise, Kobach has helped draft anti-immigration laws for such towns as Hazleton, Pennsylvania; Valley Park, Missouri; and Farmers Branch, Texas, and for the state legislatures of Arizona and Alabama.
During the Second World War, Hormel grew quickly by supplying Spam-filled K rations to the military. When the soldiers came home, they began buying meat in unprecedented quantities. Prices climbed so high that the mayor of New York City called for an investigation, but the New York Times concluded that price-fixing wasn’t to blame. “Americans are meat-hungry,” the reporter explained. “There are just more persons consuming more meat than ever before in the history of the country.”
In 1947, Hormel acquired the Fremont Packing Company, a small plant about forty miles northwest of Omaha on the Burlington Northern and Union Pacific railroads, and expanded its production line from around fifty workers to more than 600. At a time when the average farmer was earning just under $2,000 per year, the promise of more than 500 new jobs that paid $3,000 or more was a godsend. As the Los Angeles Times reported that year, “Most Hormel workers own their homes and have cars, refrigerators, well-dressed, well-fed, well-educated children.” For decades, wages held firm at about 20 percent above the national average for a manufacturing job, regardless of what was happening in the larger economy.
Then, in 1985, Hormel demanded a 23 percent wage cut, pushing union members at the flagship plant in Austin, Minnesota, to strike. Thirteen bitter months later, workers returned to the line. Within two years, Hormel threatened to eliminate more than 40 percent of the Fremont plant’s workforce unless the local agreed to wage cuts of their own.
Meanwhile, between 1983 and 1993, revenues doubled on increased output. As wages declined, earnings rose 350 percent, and the stock price went from four dollars per share to nearly twenty-four. But soon Hormel started looking for an even cheaper workforce, one that would be afraid to complain no matter how fast or dangerous the line became.
Vazquez doesn’t remember much about his journey to the United States from Chichihualco, a village of 10,000 people in the mountains of southern Mexico. It was 1991, and he was sixteen. “My mom, she make some call and we go,” he told me. They took a winding dirt road through the Sierra Madre del Sur down to Chilpancingo, where they caught a northbound bus to Mexico City. From the capital they took another bus — about thirty-six hours — to Ciudad Juárez. Once they were within sight of the U.S. border crossing, a coyote hustled everyone through a hole in the corrugated-steel fence and down an embankment into the concrete containment chute that channels the Rio Grande between Juárez and El Paso. At the shift change for the border guards, Vazquez, his mother, and several others were pulled across the river, one by one, on an inner tube held between two lengths of rope. Once on the El Paso side, they were told to go to a city park, where they were given false identification papers and bus tickets north.
As children, many of the residents of Chichihualco had worked as braceros, picking their way from the lettuce fields of California to the cherry orchards of Washington State. After suffering through the Mexican economy’s multiple crises in the 1980s, some of these migrant workers began thinking of moving north of the border permanently. But full-time residents would need year-round employment, not seasonal jobs in the fields. Fortunately, the meat-processing plants of Kansas and eastern Nebraska were hiring.
It wasn’t just Hormel attracting undocumented workers to Nebraska. Fremont Beef, a Cargill-owned plant in Schuyler, Tyson plants in Madison and Norfolk, and Wimmer’s Meats in West Point all began employing large numbers of Hispanic immigrants. Caravans of minibuses made the pilgrimage from Chichihualco to Chilpancingo every month, driving north from Mexico City through Monterrey to Piedras Negras, just across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. “After a rest and once their supplies are set,” Business Mexico magazine reported in 2003,
it’s only a few hours through the desert mountains of southern Texas to the safe house — a motel where the groups split off either to Schuyler or Fremont in Nebraska or Liberal or Dodge City in Kansas.
In an interview with the Herald Mexico in 2005, Chichihualco’s mayor estimated that hundreds of thousands of dollars were sent to his town from Nebraska and Kansas each month. With those funds, Vazquez told me, the highway into town had been paved, the narrow main thoroughfare had been widened into a tree-lined avenue, and stuccoed brick-and-mortar homes had been built among the old adobe huts.
For Vazquez, the work at Hormel was supposed to be temporary, just enough for him to get on his feet and start a business in Fremont. He spent a year or so on the kill floor, hitting hogs with a prod to stun them for slaughter, before he was finally promoted to “sticking” — plunging a steel blade into each pig’s jugular to drain it of blood. He put away enough money to qualify for a home loan, and he took in renters to help cover his mortgage payments. He had plans to start a restaurant, a bakery, maybe even a small grocery store.
But then Bob Warner, a member of Fremont’s city council, proposed the idea of an anti-immigration ordinance, one that would outlaw the harboring, hiring, and transporting of illegal immigrants. Warner was unapologetic about his goal of forcing undocumented workers out of town. “When they find out that Fremont is not a haven for illegal immigration,” he said at the meeting, “they will leave.” (In a 2012 Republican primary debate, Mitt Romney envisioned something similar nationwide: “The answer is self-deportation,” he said, “which is people decide they can do better by going home.”)
Though Vazquez and his family were U.S. citizens (he and Miguela applied as minors and were processed quickly; the couple’s five children were born here), their renters were not. When word of the proposed ordinance spread among the workers at Hormel, Vazquez’s tenants, already two months behind on their rent, left without warning — or payment. He searched frantically for new renters, but it seemed everyone was fleeing. Vazquez defaulted on his loan, and he and his family left town, too.
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.
In the three intervening weeks, things got worse. Hispanic residents received threatening letters, were harassed while shopping, and were shouted at from passing cars. One morning, a man named Alfredo Velez arrived at his grocery store, Tienda Mexicana Guerrero, to find his front window shot out.
In preparation for the next meeting, Skokan took a draft of the bill directly to Kris Kobach. With Kobach’s help in reshaping the language to resemble that of the most successful ordinances — the ones still working their way through the courts in Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Texas — Skokan tried to come up with a proposal that would be deemed constitutional should the ordinance pass a council vote. After Kobach got involved, councilman Charlie Janssen, who later announced a bid for the state legislature on an anti-immigration platform, told the Fremont Tribune, “The thing that frustrates me the most as an American citizen is that we have a federal law that we’re unable to enforce locally.”
The July 29 hearing drew more than a thousand people — so many that the gathering was moved to the auditorium of the local high school. Some fifty police officers and a bomb-sniffing dog patrolled the crowd, and more than seventy people were permitted to take the lectern. Jerry Hart, a retired IRS auditor from Fremont, said he was outraged that the ordinance hadn’t already been implemented. John Wiegert, a fifth-grade teacher in nearby Yutan, told the council that illegal immigrants were a strain on the area’s schools and hospitals. “Racism has nothing to do with this ordinance,” Wiegert insisted. “This ordinance is about what is legal and what is illegal. If the federal government is not going to watch out for us, then we need to watch out for ourselves.”
After more than three and a half hours of testimony, the members of the council decided to cancel the third hearing and vote on the ordinance that night. They explained later that they worried about further unrest if they waited another three weeks. When the measure came to a vote, just before midnight, the council split — four to four — leaving Mayor Edwards to break the tie.
Edwards had foreseen this possibility; he took out a prepared statement. “This has weighed very heavy on me,” he said, and even though he was allowed to abstain, he had decided to vote. “Control of illegal immigration is a federal issue,” he said, and the proposed ordinance overstepped the city’s jurisdiction. He said he had consulted with Nebraska attorney general Jon Bruning, who agreed that immigration matters should remain in federal hands. Passing an ordinance might pull Fremont, already struggling economically, into a long and expensive legal fight it would ultimately lose.
“I vote no,” Edwards concluded — and the room roared, but not everyone was cheering.
The next day, John Wiegert got a phone call from Wanda Kotas, then the manager of the Fremont Veterans Club. Wiegert and Kotas had both spoken passionately in favor of the ordinance the night before, and both were furious that Mayor Edwards had cast the deciding vote with a prepared statement — evidence, as they saw it, that the outcome had been determined ahead of time, that the whole process of gathering the town had been a sham.
Kotas told Wiegert that she had been contacted by John Copenhaver, an anti-immigration activist in Omaha who had called the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, which was defeated by Republicans in the House of Representatives, a “blueprint for the destruction of America.” Copenhaver had told Kotas that she should draft a petition to put the ordinance to a public vote. She would need two other Fremont citizens to act as sponsors, and they would need to collect 3,300 signatures. Kotas wanted to know if Wiegert would sign on as the second petitioner; he agreed and suggested that Kotas ask Jerry Hart to be the third.
They divided the city into a grid and went door-to-door collecting signatures. They got phone lists from Charlie Janssen, whose campaign for the state legislature was already under way. When Wiegert’s Christmas break came around at school, he started making phone calls full-time. Bob Warner helped support the petition, too: he called his constituents during the day and went out to meet with them at night.
Hart sent a letter to the editor of the Fremont Tribune:
The more that I look around Fremont, read the paper, talk to people, the more that I am sickened by what is happening to this town. It disgusts and angers me that this city is being destroyed by the greed of Hormel, Fremont Beef and like minded places.
A little more than two weeks later, on February 23, 2009, Hart, Kotas, and Wiegert submitted their petition with more than 4,100 signatures.
After they received the petition, the city council voted unanimously to request a ruling from the district court of Dodge County on whether the proposed ordinance was constitutional. The three petitioners met Kris Kobach for lunch in Fremont, and he offered to work with them on the ballot initiative pro bono — on the condition that they fully commit to the case, with the knowledge that it might be a protracted fight.
Kobach described the meeting to me as “a refreshing vignette — no, let me use the English word — a refreshing little picture of citizens who were taking this issue on, who were trying to get expert help, and who were just delighted that I was willing to help them.”
For the next year, challenges to the proposed ballot measure made their way through the Dodge County district court and the Nebraska Supreme Court. At the same time, Kobach was advising State Senator Janssen on LB 1001, a bill to repeal Nebraska’s Dream Act, which made in-state tuition available to undocumented immigrants who graduated from high school in the state. (Kobach also personally filed suit against the University of Nebraska, the State College System, and Nebraska Community Colleges on behalf of six legal residents — his in-laws and a few friends in Fairbury — claiming that their taxes were being used to support tuition breaks for illegal aliens in violation of federal law.)
In 2010, Kobach captured the Republican nomination for Kansas secretary of state — an office he eventually won in a landslide. He conceded that the laws he was helping to write were part of a concerted effort at “attrition through enforcement” — self-deportation. But he took offense at the suggestion that the intended effect amounted to harassment. “That’s not it at all. It’s just changing the calculation,” Kobach insisted. “If before Fremont adopted the ordinance you had an eighty percent chance of finding a job and successfully getting that job illegally, now maybe it’s a thirty percent chance. So it changes the calculation of a rational decision maker. Maybe a person says, ‘I’m not going to go to Fremont. I might not even go to the United States.’ So it’s all about changing the calculation: you ratchet up the costs, and you ratchet down the benefits, so that people make the rational decision to follow the law.”
Michael Hethmon, IRLI’s senior counsel, has called these local ordinances and state bills “field tests.” Kobach and IRLI are pursuing a kind of spinning-plate strategy — keeping several cases going at once and trying slightly different approaches with each one. The ultimate goal is to bring each case to the United States Supreme Court and, bit by bit, cobble together a new, wideranging immigration policy.
The Fremont ordinance was still in the courts when, shortly after the start of the morning shift on March 8, 2010, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents entered the Fremont Beef processing plant. The company was one of a thousand businesses nationwide selected at random and audited against the Federal Trade Commission’s identity-theft database. Agents presented the company with a list of names, and those employees were summoned to a conference room. Managers did not tell the workers why they had been called in, only that they should cooperate and answer all questions. In the hallway outside the conference room, ICE agents — dressed in civilian clothing, their firearms concealed — divvied up case files. Then they went in and began calling names.
One agent sat down behind the conference table and called the name of Olga Arguelles. A woman rose and came to sit beside him. He showed his identification and asked for her true and complete name, which she gave him. She told him that she had been born in Guatemala, that she was thirty-two years old, and that she had been living in a trailer park in Schuyler. She admitted that she lacked immigration papers and had entered the country illegally. The agent informed her that she was being taken into custody on an administrative arrest, then escorted her across the hall to a temporary holding room. ICE eventually arrested seventeen workers from Fremont Beef’s dayside crew.
To Jerry Hart, the sweep confirmed what he and his fellow petitioners had been saying all along. “To those people who want proof that Fremont has a problem with illegal aliens,” he wrote in another letter to the editor of the Fremont Tribune,
here it is. To those that still think that the problem is not that big, think again. . . . Had the ordinance prohibiting the hiring, renting to or harboring of illegal aliens been in force, these identity thefts might not have happened. It is appalling that citizens have to fight the City of Fremont, have to take the time and effort to circulate petitions to force this city to enforce federal laws.
An email circulated among Hormel’s workers that claimed federal agents were planning a raid at their plant next and warning that immigrants should stay away from Walmart because ICE agents might be positioned there as well. The sheriff’s office was called out to the plant to investigate a suspicious-looking device in an employee locker. Federal officials sent in a robot to retrieve it and destroy it in the parking lot. Afterward, everyone returned to work.
Then, on April 23, 2010, a ruling came down from the Nebraska Supreme Court: the ordinance language was deemed constitutional. A public vote on the measure was set for June 21.
After the April 23 ruling, enough immigrants — legal or not — left Fremont that Hormel decided it was time to act, albeit covertly. The company formed an alliance with the Fremont Chamber of Commerce and a group called One Fremont One Future, founded by Kristin Ostrom, a Fremont resident who had previously served as the executive director of the Nebraska Justice Center. By the time the coalition held its first meetings, only a month remained until the vote.
Volunteers went door-to-door in town, registering voters. They also worked to dispel rumors that there would be immigration officials and police checking I.D. outside polling places. There were numerous reports of spontaneous intimidation similar to what had occurred before the first vote on the ordinance — people shouting “Go back to Mexico!” from passing vehicles — and of windows being shot out. Someone vandalized a Habitat for Humanity sign so that it read habitat for mexicans. A rock was thrown through the front window of Ostrom’s house.
One Fremont One Future didn’t initially have the budget for yard signs or bumper stickers or buttons. But then Ron Tillery, executive director of the Fremont Area Chamber of Commerce, contacted Les Leech, president of Fremont Beef, and Donnie Temperley, the plant manager at Hormel. Leech went to Hormel’s corporate headquarters in Austin, Minnesota, to discuss strategy, and Temperley asked Hormel for funds to help produce an anti-ordinance TV-advertising campaign.
Shortly before Tillery and Ostrom were scheduled to give interviews on KHUB radio in Fremont, a Hormel PR manager named Bill McLain sent them a long email. “I’ve drafted a list of questions that I think could be topics of discussion during the show tomorrow,” he wrote. “I will start drafting proposed responses to these questions and send them to you.” Later that night, McLain sent detailed answers — more than 2,200 words in all — to each of the questions he had posed.
When I contacted Hormel about their involvement with Ostrom’s campaign, the company released a prepared statement: “Hormel Foods supported the Chamber’s position in opposition to the ordinance,” they wrote, but had “found it most appropriate to communicate through the Chamber to enable a constructive dialogue and to speak on behalf of all its members about this issue.”
On the weekend before the vote, Ostrom and other opponents of the measure organized a final push — 200 volunteers canvassing 9,000 homes. At the Regency II trailer park, where many of the plants’ Hispanic workers lived, there was a simple white sign at the entrance: vote no.
On the night of June 21, 2010, the supporters of One Fremont One Future gathered in the old Fremont Veterans Club off Military Avenue — the very spot where the first signatures for the petition had been collected — and waited for the results. It wasn’t close. The county clerk’s office reported that night that Fremont voters had approved the measure by a wide margin — 57 percent to 43 percent. “There were a lot of tears in this room tonight,” Ostrom told the New York Times. “Unfortunately, people have voted for an ordinance that’s going to cost millions of dollars, and that says to the Hispanic community that the Anglo community is saying they are not welcome here.”
The ACLU, together with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, decided to file suit against the City of Fremont in federal court, and they hired Ostrom to work on immigration issues full-time. Ostrom hoped the courts would strike down the ordinance, just as they had previous measures in other small towns, and that this would end the long battle in Nebraska.
A few months after the suit was filed, in January 2011, Charlie Janssen introduced a Kobach-approved anti-immigration law, LB48, at the state level. When the bill was debated, some legislators objected to language in it that gave to any peace officer the power to determine the immigration status of a person “when reasonable suspicion exists that the person is unlawfully present in the United States.” State Senator Steve Lathrop, whose district is in Omaha, asked Janssen, “Can you think of anything besides skin color and a command of the English language that would provide a reasonable suspicion?” Janssen struggled to answer:
If you . . . You know, one scenario would be perhaps if you pulled somebody over in an unlicensed vehicle. Nobody knew exactly where they were going. There were way too many people in the vehicle as far as . . .
The gallery in the capitol building let out a collective gasp; a disgruntled murmur passed up and down the rows of senators. But Janssen proceeded: “There are ten people in a vehicle; that could be” — and here Janssen was interrupted by the sergeant at arms calling for order — “reasonable suspicion.” The exchange sank LB48, and Ostrom hoped it would take the Fremont ordinance with it.
But then, in February 2012, U.S. district court judge Laurie Smith Camp issued a declaratory judgment on the Fremont ordinance. She struck down some of the housing provisions; the town, she found, could not revoke occupancy licenses from or impose fines on landlords who rented to undocumented aliens. But she criticized the ACLU and the other plaintiffs for alleging racial bias without sufficient evidence and upheld a provision requiring businesses in Fremont to use E-Verify, a federal system that checks prospective employees for valid citizenship.
Both sides claimed victory, but the E-Verify provision makes it very difficult for undocumented immigrants to live in Fremont: they will either have to enter a false name on employment-application forms — an act that would likely violate state laws concerning document fraud — or willingly acknowledge their illegal status.
After the district-court ruling, Kristin Ostrom and her husband decided it was time to leave Fremont. The couple who bought the Ostroms’ house, Rafael Del Jesus and April Wadleigh, got their keys the day the new ordinance went on the books. When I met them later that day, their two children, Eleyanna and Audrek, were bellowing through the empty house, charging up and down the stairs, as Wadleigh and Del Jesus stood outside — still marveling that this beautiful Victorian, with its wraparound porch looking out onto the boulevard, was really theirs.
The family had lived at the Conestoga Crossing Apartments for two years, then spent the following six in a snug duplex near the YMCA. All the while, Del Jesus has worked at Hormel; he started out driving animals through the chutes to the kill floor and eventually worked his way up to running the spice mixer, a computerized system that chills and blends 9,000 pounds of sausage at a time. He told me that he had supported the ordinance when it was first introduced and only slowly came to oppose it.
Del Jesus is disarmingly baby faced, with Cabbage Patch cheeks and sad eyes. As we spoke in the kitchen of his new home, empty except for the two bar stools the Ostroms had left at the island, he paced back and forth, searching for the words to explain why he had been in favor of the ordinance. When he was eleven years old, he told me, he came to the United States with his brother from the Dominican Republic. The boys had been separated from their mother for seven years while she worked to save up money and navigate the bureaucracy of the immigration system to bring them to be with her in Brooklyn. He could barely remember her; his grandmother was the only mother he knew. “Being honest with you,” he said, “I did not want to come here.”
His eyes turned to the ceiling and then to the kitchen window. He broke into a quiet sob. “Let me tell it,” Wadleigh said gently, and Del Jesus went outside. She explained that her husband had never been able to get over the double loss — first of his real mother when he was four, and then of his grandmother when he was eleven. He couldn’t help but think that his wait to move to the United States might not have been so long, so painful, had there not been so many illegal immigrants flooding into the country ahead of him. When the ordinance was proposed, Del Jesus later told me, he had thought: “Good, they should have to play by the same rules as me.”
But then Del Jesus started to notice a change in Fremont. After a night of drinking and dancing, a friend of his from work was stopped by a sheriff’s deputy; the friend failed a field sobriety test and was put on probation for DUI. (That same friend’s Habitat for Humanity home was later one of those vandalized before the 2010 immigration vote.) Cruisers were stationed at the western edge of town, pulling over cars as they came from the Mexican dance hall — never outside the bars frequented by white Fremonters.
Del Jesus was also affected directly. When he and Wadleigh applied for a home loan, they were initially denied because they didn’t have any credit history. To build credit fast, Del Jesus bought a BMW sedan — but driving around Fremont in 2011, he was repeatedly stopped by police asking to see proof of ownership. The third time he was stopped, Del Jesus began “yelling and swearing at the officer,” according to Fremont’s deputy police chief, and was arrested for disorderly conduct.
Del Jesus had been depressed for a while after that, but in the weeks after taking possession of the house, he was back to his old self. For Easter Sunday, he invited a friend from work to come over with his family for an egg hunt in the grass. Wadleigh conceded that she wondered what the neighbors had thought, watching a group of Hispanics out in the yard, playing with their children and grilling, but then she realized: “This was exactly what Kristin was fighting for.”
Last June, the Supreme Court overturned significant portions of Arizona’s anti-immigration law, but affirmed the right of state law-enforcement officials to ask for proof of citizenship during routine stops. Kris Kobach called the ruling a victory, adding, “It makes the City of Fremont’s case even stronger.” In reality, it was the beginning of the G.O.P.’s slow move away from immigration hard-liners like Kobach — though not in time to save the 2012 election. (After saying “Kris has been a true leader on securing our borders” in January 2012 and naming him as an “informal adviser” on immigration in April, Mitt Romney claimed in September not to know who Kobach was.) But the anti-immigration wing of the Republican Party hasn’t disappeared. With victories like the one in Fremont, it will continue to press its advantage locally as the rest of the party shifts to embrace immigration reform nationally. (Last August, for example, Nebraska governor Dave Heineman announced that his state would not issue driver’s licenses to immigrants given the right to stay in the United States under President Obama’s “deferred action” program.) If the Supreme Court allows greater control by local governments over immigration law, a federal Dream Act and other reforms will do very little to make life in this country as an undocumented immigrant — or as a Spanish-speaking American citizen — tolerable.
The uncertainty is enough to keep Raul Vazquez worried. He still gets up at 4:30 a.m. to get ready for another day’s shift at Hormel. He puts on the coffee and gets dressed — always in a sweater to keep off the chill of the refrigerated ham department. He fills his thermos and then sets out, picking up a friend who works on the kill floor along the way. The streets in town are still dark — but they are anything but abandoned. Headlights hunt down the side streets and out onto Colfax; they crawl across the overpass — the grain elevators and the city water tower floodlit from below — and then jog east onto 16th Street. Most mornings, when Vazquez reaches U.S. 30, the clock on his dashboard reads just 4:50 a.m., but already a line of cars stretches out before him, snaking toward Fremont.
More from Ted Genoways:
Postcard — February 14, 2014, 12:23 pm
Postcard — November 1, 2013, 8:00 am