FREMONT, Neb. — A Nebraska city's attempt to fight illegal immigration with a newly court-approved ordinance appears likely to be more of an inconvenience for legal residents than a deterrent to illegal immigrants.
Backers of the voter-approved measure say they're still glad a federal judge signed off on most of the ordinance's provisions Monday because it represents at least some progress.
The measure won't have any effect beyond the city limits of Freemont. That means two major meatpacking plants and some neighborhoods, including some with large immigrant populations, won't be covered by the requirements for businesses to use the federal E-Verify database to ensure employees are legal or by housing permit rules for renters.
The ordinance adds some red tape for businesses and residents in the city of 26,000. The judge said Freemont can require companies to use the free federal E-Verify system to verify the citizenship status of people they hire. It can also require potential renters to swear they are legal residents and pay $5 to obtain a renting permit. But the city won't be able to revoke the rental permits if applicants are found to be illegal immigrants.
"It's better than nothing," said John Wigert, who helped collect petition signatures to get the measure on the ballot. "Is it going to solve everything? Probably not. I guess something is better than nothing."
The ordinance stirred a whirlwind of controversy in June 2010, when roughly 57 percent of Fremont voters who turned up at the polls supported it. The measure catapulted the city just west of Omaha into the national spotlight and spurred comparisons with Arizona and some cities embroiled in the debate over immigration regulations.
Fremont, about 35 miles northwest of Omaha, has seen its Hispanic population surge in the past two decades, largely due to the jobs available at the Fremont Beef and Hormel plants, which are just outside the city. Census data show the number of Hispanics soared from 165 in 1990 to 1,085 in 2000 and 3,149 in 2010.
It's unknown how many illegal immigrants live in the city. According to census figures, 1,259 noncitizens live there. That figure includes illegal immigrants as well as lawful permanent residents, foreign students and refugees in the U.S. legally.
The vote — and the attention it brought — took an immediate political toll. The City Council president, mayor, city attorney and city administrator all resigned within a year, citing various reasons.
Aaron Paden, one of five people running for mayor, said the ordinance will no doubt play into the election.
"I've spoken to a few businesses owners about it, and ... they definitely feel this is just another burden for them," Paden said. "I don't feel that it should be up to the businesses to police these matters. We have federal agencies that should be handling that. All this ordinance is now is another hoop to jump through."
Ron Tillery, with the Fremont Area Chamber of Commerce, questioned Tuesday how effective the ordinance will be. Most of Fremont's businesses already comply with the E-Verify requirements, he said, and the new housing permits seem to serve little purpose in the wake of the judge's ruling. He said the city will incur costs to process the rental permits but won't be allowed to act on the information and deny any permits.
Hormel officials confirmed the company has been verifying the citizenship status of its employees since 1999 but declined to answer additional questions about the ordinance.
Many business owners said Tuesday they didn't know how the ordinance will affect their hiring practices and declined to comment.
At least one store owner expected the judge's ruling to rekindle the firestorm of 20 months ago that saw racial tensions in the city rise.
"This is going to be a ghost town if they keep pushing this ordinance," said Alfredo Velez, who owns Tienda Mexicana Guerrero, which sells food and other products from Mexico and Central America. "That ordinance is not about illegal (immigrants). It's about race. The people behind it don't want Hispanics here."
Velez also said he was willing to move his store if his business is hurt.
Petition organizer Jerry Hart said he knows the ordinance won't eliminate illegal immigration, but he hopes it will inspire other cities and states to act.
"Our goal when we started was just to get the issue to a vote of the people," Hart said. "The people of Fremont let it be known that they don't want illegal immigrants in their community."
City Attorney Paul Payne declined to answer questions about how and when the ordinance would be implemented. A City Council meeting is scheduled for Tuesday.
The rental permit provisions of the law could take effect as soon as early March, with the employment rules kicking in 60 days later in May.
Details of Fremont ordinance: http://bit.ly/w5Y4YK