Report — From the February 2013 issue

This Land Is Not Your Land

Deciding who belongs in America

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.

Kobach has continued his localized approach even as the national narrative on the subject has changed. After President Obama won re-election with 71 percent of the Latino vote, the national leadership of the Republican Party began openly contemplating a compromise on immigration reform. Kobach has called this reversal “pure political calculation” and vowed to match any policy liberalization by the federal government with continued measures at the state and local levels. And it’s in towns like Fremont — ensconced in conservative strongholds like Nebraska — that he is finding his most steadfast support.

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October 2019