Fremont still waiting for immigration ruling

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January 31st, 2012

Fremont, NE – A year and a half ago, voters in the eastern Nebraska city of Fremont approved a controversial ballot initiative that would ban hiring, renting to or harboring illegal immigrants.
But the law has yet to go into effect – the city suspended enforcement when a lawsuit was filed weeks after the bill was passed, and just last week, the trial date was moved yet again, from April to May.

How is the city handling the waiting game?

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“This is a very volatile issue, and it divides reasonable, logical, friendly people,” said Scott Getzchmann, mayor of Fremont. “They have different opinions.”

Signs posted outside Mercado y Carnecia Guerrero in Fremont, Neb. cater to the city's Hispanic population. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

Getzchmann was city council president during the run-up to the 2010 city vote on the ordinance. He’s had a front-row seat to Fremont’s immigration debate, which started back in the summer of 2008 when the city council first voted on the illegal immigration ordinance.

Then-Mayor Skip Edward cast the deciding vote that night, a “no” vote. But “no” wasn’t the last word, as Fremont’s immigration ordinance headed down a long and winding road. A petition initiative, a State Supreme Court hearing, and then the June 2010 ballot initiative vote. Citizens approved the measure 57 to 43 percent, but a lawsuit was quickly filed against the ordinance, putting enforcement in limbo.

Going on four years after the issue first arose, Fremont is still waiting to find out if it will become law. But Getzchmann, who voted against the immigration ordinance as a city council member, said the city has carried on with business as usual.

“At the end of the day, you can’t stop, and we have to continue to focus on our growth – and we continue to focus on the positive,” he said.

South and Central American products line the shelves at Mercado y Carnecia Guerrero in Fremont, Neb. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

And there has been growth, he said, pointing to work on a new data and business park, a million-dollar airport runway and a new project from Natura pet product manufacturing company.

Fremont is Nebraska’s 6th largest city, with 26,400 residents, about 3100 of which are Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census.

But while opinions were eagerly – and loudly – shared during the 2008 debates, trips to four downtown caf s and coffeehouses didn’t turn up a single white Fremont resident who was willing to weigh in on the subject. One coffee shop owner asked that his comments not be recorded because the issue is too touchy. At the same time, he said he’s had to chastise a group of regulars for their loud, anti-Hispanic comments.

But Fremont’s immigrants were a different story.

“I’m living in the United States past few years, and I’m from Africa originally, but now I am an alien resident, which I will be a resident soon,” said Bashir Farah, who lives and works in the city. He came to the U.S. from Somalia to escape civil war.

“I have heard a few things about immigration in Fremont,” he said. “Here in Fremont, they don’t really they don’t appreciate diversity.”

Without prompting, he showed an NET News reporter his green card.

“If a person has legal documents, it’s someone who is contributing something to the community, and is hardworking, it should be different,” he said.

A few blocks away from the sandwich shop where Farah was eating is a Mexican grocery store, Mercado y Carnecia Guerrero. The store was a little dark; the narrow aisles of shelves were packed with groceries, like colorful packages of candy and stacks of corn and flour tortilla. Some of the labels are in English, some in Spanish.

A young man named Alex, who moved to Fremont five years ago, was shopping with his girlfriend.

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be OK here,” he said. “It’s a good country for living here, you know?”

Alex seemed to be the only English speaker among the half-dozen people in the store. Originally from Honduras, he spent seven years in Miami before moving to Nebraska. In Florida, he said, everyone speaks Spanish – “You go to the malls, people speak Spanish. In the streets, people speak Spanish” – but in Fremont, knowing English is the key to acceptance.

“The other Latinos who come here, we need to speak English,” he said. “At least 25 percent. I got a lot of friends, the white boys, but nobody (discriminates against) me.”

Alex said he hasn’t changed how he lives since the ordinance was passed.

The trial date for the lawsuit brought against Fremont by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund is now set for May 15th. Fremont property owners have been paying a little extra in property taxes since the immigration ordinance was approved to establish a $750,000 reserve fund to cover the costs of defending the city against the suit.

Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State, is representing Fremont; he helped write the bill the Fremont citizens passed. To date, the city has paid him about $35,000 in attorney’s fees.

There’s still a chance that U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp will issue a summary opinion on the case, and it won’t go to court at all – but for his part, Mayor Getzchmann, isn’t making any predictions.

“I certainly don’t like to guess, and I don’t like to assume, and we really have no idea what’s going to happen or what the outcomes are,” he said. “We know that the case could go to trial, and we know that the case may not go to trial, and until we know what the outcomes are, all we can do is focus on growth.”

And as to the money set aside for legal fees, he said the city has always intended that “if this case is resolved, that money goes back to the citizens of Fremont.”

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