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.”
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.