Postcard — November 1, 2013, 8:00 am

Who Belongs in Fremont, Nebraska?

The city of Fremont reopens debate on its anti-immigration ordinance 

Two women in the front react to a show of hands of Fremont citizens who agree with a speaker who was in favor of implementing a city ordinance against illegal immigrants, in Fremont, Nebraska, July 27, 2010. © AP Photo/Nati Harnik

Two women in the front react to a show of hands of those in agreement with a speaker who was in favor of a city ordinance against illegal immigrants, Fremont, Nebraska, July 27, 2010. © AP Photo/Nati Harnik

A daylong fog turned to light rain on Tuesday night as the Fremont, Nebraska, city council convened for its monthly meeting. In chambers, a crowd packed into tight rows of folding chairs or stood at the back of the room, spilling out into the hallways. They’d been drawn by news that council member Todd Hoppe had asked the city attorney to draft an amendment repealing sections of Fremont’s controversial Ordinance 5165 requiring renters to prove their citizenship in order to acquire occupancy licenses, and making it a crime for landlords to rent to undocumented immigrants. Hoppe, a manager at All Metals Market who also holds multiple rental properties in Fremont, was visibly wary as he took his seat. Craig Corn, an unsuccessful candidate for mayor last year, couldn’t resist needling him. “You sure know how to draw a crowd, Todd,” Corn called from the front row. Hoppe managed only a cautious smile.

The tone soon turned from tense to contentious. As Mayor Scott Getzschman opened with a pro-forma resolution to thank third-grade students at Washington Elementary School on Fremont’s largely Hispanic south side for inviting him to their classroom, a woman named Cindy Hart called out, “How could you understand them?” (Later, at the lectern, she explained unapologetically, “I don’t want Spanish in my schools.”) It was the start of a common refrain: that Fremont has been overrun by Hispanic immigration, that those immigrants are overwhelmingly in the country illegally, and that they create a drain on the city’s resources — by requiring it to provide instruction in schools for English as a second language, by failing to pay for emergency care at the local hospital, or by collecting public assistance for food and housing.

There’s some truth behind the outrage. As I wrote in “This Land Is Not Your Land,” in the February 2013 issue of Harper’s, the breaking of powerful labor unions like the United Food and Commercial Workers in the 1980s allowed companies like Hormel, on Fremont’s southern edge, to begin recruiting large numbers of low-paid (and often undocumented) line workers. Their influx drove the Hispanic population in this part of Nebraska from less than 1,000 in 1990 to nearly 16,000 today, roughly 20 percent of the population in the state’s northeastern corner. (Fremont’s population in 2012 was 26,167.)

But other facts about the Hispanic presence in the region are less cut-and-dry. Proponents of the ordinance point to Washington Elementary as evidence that overwhelming numbers of Fremont preschoolers arrive unable to speak English, but the school’s former principal told me that by the time those students are fifth graders, they score highest among the city’s elementary schools on statewide reading comprehension exams. Similarly, the CEO of the Fremont Area Medical Center said that while it’s true Hispanics account for roughly half a million dollars in unpaid medical bills each year, uninsured Hispanics actually pay up at a higher rate than uninsured white patients.

By now, these are well-worn debates in Fremont — ones that often break down in arguments about anecdotes versus statistics. Those present at the council meeting wanted to voice their outrage at having to revisit a battle they thought they had already won in a June 2010 referendum that passed Ordinance 5165 with 57 percent of the vote — and that, many pointed out, has stood up to repeated legal challenges.

This June, a three-judge panel from the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s finding that the housing portions of the ordinance violated federal fair-housing laws. Then, two weeks ago, it rejected a petition by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) to have the full Eight Circuit court rehear their challenges. With that loss, opponents of the law seemed to be left only with the possibility of an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, on October 15, representatives from the Fair Housing Center of Iowa and Nebraska met with city council to advise them that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development had raised concerns about the legality of the ordinance. The representatives warned councilors that the housing provisions of the ordinance — which Fremont had held off on implementing while they made their way through the courts — could lead the city to lose millions of dollars in community-development grants, or even force it to repay grants dating back to the ordinance’s passage.

The council was also advised that other federal appeals courts had ruled against similar provisions passed by Farmers Branch, Texas, and Hazleton, Pennsylvania, both of whose ordinances were authored by Kris Kobach, the same attorney who had crafted Fremont’s. Moreover, the disparity between circuit-court rulings assessing identical or near-identical language increased the chances that the U.S. Supreme Court would hear the case. And ACLU and MALDEF attorneys had already filed paperwork seeking more than $1 million in legal fees from Fremont — a figure that could more than double if they won a Supreme Court appeal.

Following this meeting, Hoppe requested that an amendment be drafted to remove the potentially problematic sections of the ordinance. Supporters of the law, who had been celebrating their court victory and now expected the occupancy-licensing provisions to be enacted at last, were enraged to learn that the council was instead exploring the possibility of repealing those sections.

As he opened the public-comment period of the meeting, Mayor Getzschman emphasized that council had drafted the amendment so that it could better weigh its options and solicit the opinions of Fremont’s citizens. Former city councilman Bob Warner — who had introduced the original ordinance in 2008, only to see it defeated by a split vote before being brought forth by petition as a ballot measure — stood at the lectern breathing impatiently into the microphone as the city clerk read the text of the amendment. When he began speaking, he could barely contain his anger. “You already know what the peoples’ wish was because they told you in a voting booth,” he said, his voice so loud that his words were distorted by the speakers.

John Wiegert, who had helped lead the ballot campaign, echoed Warner’s outrage. “You’re totally going against the will of the people and the decisions of the courts,” he said. “To think that you would use one of the best lawyers in the nation to represent us — and he’s won every court decision — and then turn around and you stick it to him and the citizens of Fremont who voted for this, it’s despicable.” Wiegert went so far as to speculate that council members were “in cahoots” with attorneys from the ALCU and MALDEF. “We have a crooked government,” he said. “You guys should be ashamed of yourselves.”

But the most pointed criticism of the night came from Jerry Hart, a former IRS auditor who had run the petition drive along with Wiegert. “When you talk about the HUD grants,” Hart started calmly, “you forget to take into account is that the courts have already looked at this ordinance.” He explained that the courts had ruled that the ordinance did not conflict with federal law and did not constitute discriminatory practice; if it came down to a struggle between HUD and the courts, Hart predicted, the courts “would have more say-so.” He then straightened his papers on the lectern and turned to address Hoppe directly. “My opinion, based on the houses that you have: you’re nothing but a slum landlord.” Others, too, had asserted that Hoppe was pushing to repeal the housing provisions in order to keep his low-rent tenants, but Hart was more explicit. “You’ve got a house down on South Pierce that’s inhabited by multiple families of Hispanics,” he said. “Most of those, I understand, are illegal.” The amendment, he added, was “underhanded, unscrupulous, backroom, immoral, unethical, Chicago-style politics.”

From the archive: Read Ted Genoways’s “This Land Is Not Your Land”

For all the talk of a town at the mercy of undocumented Hispanics, only one was among the twenty-two townspeople who rose to speak. Maggie Zarate, a young mother, recounted a day when her children had been playing in the yard and a salesman came to her door. After she turned the man away, she said, he began cursing at her and shouting that she “should go back to Mexico” and take her children with her. “I’m a third-generation American,” she said. Ever since the ordinance debate began, she explained, everyone in Fremont seemed to assume that she was illegal — and that it was okay to discriminate against her for being Hispanic. “I have one question for the council,” she said. “Can I just have my children step outside my house and be able to play?”

Immediately following Zarate was Charlie Janssen, a former Fremont city councilor who had voted for Warner’s original ordinance proposal, then played a key role in the petition drive by supplying his supporter rolls to Wiegert and Hart. Janssen, now a state senator, is running for the Republican nomination for governor of Nebraska. “This, to me, at this point isn’t about illegal immigration anymore,” he said. “It’s about listening to your constituents.” Repealing an ordinance that voters in sixteen of twenty precincts had approved was “just not right,” he said. “If you want to do something, throw it back to the people. See where they’re at.”

It was after nine o’clock by the time the crowd spilled out onto the side streets along Military Avenue. The rain was picking up, but many people lingered, still talking under the streetlights, heedless of the shower and the cold. Most were loudly complaining about “illegals on food stamps” or “José in his lowrider.” I stopped Hoppe as he was coming out of the building. He seemed circumspect, even shaken, by the anger he had unleashed. “That’s just emotions, and I understand it; it’s an emotional issue,” he said. “It may seem that we’re at opposite ends, but we’re not. We want to take care of the illegal-alien issue in this community, and I believe everybody, when they voted, voted to take care of the illegal aliens. But sometimes they don’t know what price tag is attached to that.”

After seeing what he called “the ferocity” in chambers, he said he was inclined to heed Janssen’s advice and put the issue to a ballot measure. “Honestly, I couldn’t feel right passing it through the council,” he said. “We need to look at a special election, making sure everybody can vote on whether they want to keep this part in the ordinance — asking everybody, before we go ahead, ‘Are you sure you want to pull these purse strings?’ ”

As I left town, I drove, as I always do, past the Hormel plant, along the railroad tracks. Even at that hour, steam billowed and filled the air with the smell of cooking pork. The parking lot was dark. Even the company signs were dimmed. Only the corporate logo on the south side burned into the empty darkness — bright, like a beacon.

Update: On Tuesday, November 12, the Fremont City Council met for a second reading of the amendment to repeal the housing portions of Ordinance 5165. Before the reading, council member Jennifer Bixby introduced a resolution to call a special election that would have put the decision before voters. Another heated public-comment period followed, in which ordinance supporters pointed out that 4,000 citizens had already cast their ballots in favor of it in 2010. Former council member Bob Warner demanded of Mayor Scott Getzschman, “Do you represent the 4,000? Or do you represent Hormel?” After comments closed, Bixby’s resolution passed by a vote of 7–1. The City of Fremont will hold a vote on the ordinance on February 11, 2014.

Single Page
is the author of two books of poems and of Walt Whitman and the Civil War.

More from Ted Genoways:

Postcard February 14, 2014, 12:23 pm

The City of No

Fremont, Nebraska, has voted to keep its anti-immigration ordinance — at a possible cost of millions

From the February 2013 issue

This Land Is Not Your Land

Deciding who belongs in America

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  • tttbnr

    I grew up in that part of Nebraska, and even stopped in Fremont to purchase some Cornhusker regalia last time I visited, which was before this disgusting display of legal bias by its citizens. I am so sorry for the discrimination of these bigots, who have betrayed the goodwill I thought defined Nebraskans. Of course, I knew something was wrong earlier, when Nebraska was the only state that had a majority approval rating for President W. Bush during the end of his second term.

    • Mauricio Carvallan

      Idiot, Come to California, Mexifornia, and you will change your opinion fats.. There are no more Americans, BUT FAT NASTY MEXICAN THUGS THAT TOOK OVER TE STATE!!!!! For you: Die in a mexican car crash Bi???TCH! Mex, get out of My Country!

  • Flip Wilson

    It would have been an even better article had you interviewed the two lone Latino women in the front seats. They seemed very courageous to be there in the first place.

    • momgoose

      If you look at the copyright info below the picture, it was taken in July 2010 not at the most recent meeting so the writer couldn’t have interviewed those women.

    • NateM

      Yes, don’t interview the people who introduced the law, or voted for it, to get any idea why. Interview the two hispanic women trying to give the mad eye to anybody raising there hand to guilt them out of their opinion. That’d give a great perspective on the issue.

  • Bill

    I grew up in Fremont and visit often. Every time I’m back, I hear about the issues they are having (or at least think they’re having) and I definitely understanding that people want to solve the immigration issue for themselves. However I’ve also read the law that they are proposing – and that law will not do what they would like it to.

    Imagine setting up a road block to catch drunk drivers, and instead of having the officer looking for open alcohol containers, blood shot eyes, slurred speech, cars that are swerving, or the smell of alcohol, instead they blindly hand a questionaire to each driver – “Have you been drinking? Yes – please pull to the side / No – continue on your way”. Do you think this would stop many drunk drivers? No – it won’t, yet this law does exactly the same thing.

  • TK

    Simple, if you are here legally, welcome. If you are not, you need to leave. It’s just insane to blatantly ignore a reasonable expectation that those living, working and planning to retire in America be legal citizens.

    • CommonSense

      A national law was already in place before the ordinance. When the ordinance passed our population didn’t go down….so maybe if we look beyond skin color we’ll realize that we can’t assume someone is illegal based on skin color or how many languages they can speak. “Minority” isn’t synonymous with “illegal”.

  • blah123

    My husband is from India and he gets called names and told, “Go back where you came from”, because of his skin color. That is my problem with this ordinance is that it gives white people(sorry, but it is almost always white people) an okay to be racist to someone with a different skin color. My husband has brown skin and some people think that it is okay to say whatever they feel even if it is extremely racist. If you want to know about someone’s background, ask politely or keep your mouth shut. I ask you this, would you like to be treated differently because you weren’t born in the USA or does everyone have the right to have freedoms? Don’t assume everyone that is not white is here illegally or bad people because they don’t happen to be the same color as you.

    • BJ

      I agree with not judging people and their legal status on the color of a person’s skin. I have a friend that has that issue as well. However I will point out that I work in a very racially diverse work place and I have heard some very racists comments towards Hispanics from African American coworkers. I have also had heard some very racial comments made towards white and African American from Hispanics. And do I even have to mention the racists and hateful comments my friend has to put up with because she is from Jordan and is Muslim? On the other hand I know Hispanic, African American and white who are not racist at all and we get along just fine. I’m not saying there aren’t white people who are racist but there is racism everywhere, it isn’t just a white issue. It occurs in all culture and ethnic backgrounds.

      • blah123

        I did say “mostly” white people, not all white people. The reason I made this statement is because of my personal experiences. I am white and my husband has brown skin. And yes, I agree, anyone can be racist regardless have skin color. My personal experiences of people being rude to my husband have been white people for the most part.

      • Jamie


  • billie y

    I was born in Fremont. My husband is an immigrant (and a naturalized citizen) who never left the house except to go to work in Omaha, because of the pervasive racism. We left town 5 years ago, and only return to visit my parents. I haven’t spent a nickel in that town since the ordinance passed. It really is as awful as described in the article.

  • OctaviusAugustus

    Did you know Fremont, Nebraska is named after John C. Fremont, a Freemason, who entered Mexico in the 1840′s without legal authorization in order to secure California as part of the Manifest Destiny movement to secure more American territory? How ironic that today’s citizens of Fremont, Nebraska are now upset about their new neighbors who only want to work and contribute their sweat and toil for the betterment of a community that would economically collapse if companies like Hormel decide to close their plant for lack of labor.

  • Cornhusker

    As someone who currently lives in the area around Fremont, I believe that the city’s resources would be better spent battling the rampant methamphetamine abuse.

    • Susan Siebler

      you are so correct! And they are mostly whites that are doing that!

  • neb8fan

    Nebraska, The Good Life. Filled to the brim with Christian Values. We should be ashamed of ourselves to try to pass this crap.

  • Chicano Patriot

    My experiences with Fremont and their inhabitants goes back to the 80′s when I motored there as a clerk with the CNW RR…..even back then i noticed a Mexican American presence in the town. Now that Hormel and other agriculturally based industry are dependent on low wage labor to provide investors a profit this small Mexican American presence has multiplied into a Latino demographic storm that has 4th and 5th generation European immigrants crying “I want my Country back”!! These chants are mostly in fear and confusion having to live in close proximity with people of color that seemingly suddenly came to town and burst the impervious “Eisenhower Bubble” that had blanketed the town since the late 50′s. As frantic as this right wing core group was, they brought in the Kansas Carpetbagger Kobach, to mount a legal fight against this hoard of ‘colored’ people who were invading their town. What I find hard to believe is that Fremont has some heavy weight corporations in town that are not part of the agricultural industry. Midlands University, has been in town for almost 125 years. I have not seen where they have said one thing or another about illegal immigration. How about the Masonic Eastern Star Children s Hospital ? This article did refute a basic tenant with racist connotations posing the argument of how much illegals cost the local government… argument that was refuted by this article. So what gives…..well on my part, for all those tea party, less government creeps I say “NO”, you can’t have your Country back ese! After over 250 years of genocidal actions, racism, downright murderous intent against people of color, none of you Immigrants of the European persuasion that fails to see just how diverse and beautiful our Nation truly is, go back where you originally came from, since things just did not work in your present generation. The rest of us immigrants, European, Asian, from the Indian Continent, Mexican Americans, Hispanics, Latinos, African Americans, Arabic Americans, Oriental Americans, we will continue to build a Country of Patriots and citizens united in diversity, under one flag, with Liberty and Justice, por todos ese!!

  • theonewhoknocks

    “…by the time those students are fifth graders, they’re score highest among the city’s elementary schools on statewide reading comprehension exams.”

    Really? They’re complaining about the quality of the language education provided in this school when the author can’t even proofread his own article? Clearly, he doesn’t even a basic understanding of English and can still get ahead in this country, so what’s the big deal? :D

    • IWASBS

      ” Clearly, he doesn’t even a basic understanding of English” — first rule of criticizing someone’s grammar online is that you, likely, will demonstrate your own weakness.

  • Marco

    It’s sad to see a community torn apart because of this issue. People need to stand up up for what is right as equality goes. Other communities around Nebraska have a large percentage population of Hispanics and are doing perfectly fine. It’s amazing to see when people from Fremont come to other towns and cities and see how everyone is being treated equally. Grow up Fremont and see the advantages that these citizens can help you accomplish!

  • samantha

    I do not have a problem with the Latino, but if they are here illegally they should not have our Rights. I know in my neighborhood a lot of them are not legal.

  • swsmash

    If the people of Fremont fought against and objected to the collapse of the Mexican economy in 1994 by the big banks and the US government, then they can complain. But if they sat idly by while someone else’s country was destroyed by their good ole US of A, then they have no right to object.

  • Timothy Charles Butz

    As the representative of the Fair Housing Center of NE-IA who addressed the Fremont City Council on October 15th, I want to correct a misstatement of fact in this article. HUD did not question the legality of the Fremont immigration ordinance.
    HUD is not a party to any of the litigation over the ordinance and did not even file an amicus brief when the 8th Circuit reviewed the law. HUD has made clear that it is concerned over the potential discrimination that could arise from the application of the ordinance. HUD informed the Nebraska Department of Economic Development of this concern in the course of a civil rights compliance review of the state agency. HUD offered some technical guidance on actions that would be appropriate to counter the
    effects of the ordinance and the need to do so because the recipients of HUD
    funds are statutorily bound to take actions to affirmatively further fair
    Both the state economic development agency and the city have this obligation, and it cannot be ignored. It is factually inaccurate to say that HUD has told the city that it questions the validity of the ordinance. HUD has questioned whether the ordinance creates barriers to fair housing choice, an issue it has worked on since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968.

  • Mauricio Carvallan


  • Mauricio Carvallan


  • Mauricio Carvallan


  • Susan Siebler

    I thank you for giving attention to this mess. I live in Fremont and am thoroughly ashamed by the bigoted way this has been handled. I live in the section of town where the highest percentage of immigrants live and let me tell you, I have never known better neighbors. This whole thing is shameful and a terrible black mark on our town. Fremont, it’s just right, is Fremont’s motto, maybe it should be Fremont, we’re just white!



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