Monday's vote has implications beyond Fremont

2010-06-19T23:55:00Z 2010-06-22T18:58:33Z Monday's vote has implications beyond FremontBy ART HOVEY / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com
June 19, 2010 11:55 pm  • 

FREMONT - Democracy is about to speak in Smalltown Middle America, and much of the outside world, including the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times, is listening.

A vote Monday will determine if citizens want a local enforcement hammer to wield against employers who give illegal immigrants a paycheck and landlords who give them a place to live.

What happens beyond the election is open to question. It's widely assumed the loser will sue about as quickly as the last ballot is counted.

Brothers Trino and Jose Nuño - lifelong residents, U.S. citizens, graduates of Fremont High School and recent academic honorees at their hometown's Midland College - can't believe what they're seeing.

"This community has a lot of great people in it," said 21-year-old Trino, a newly minted Midland graduate and an aspiring dentist.

"They look past racial profiling and alien status," he said as he reflected on a very different election dialogue at a local coffee shop.

Jose, 20 and intent on a nursing degree, has tried to sort out where all this local turmoil came from in a town of about 25,000.

"And really," he said, "my thought was, ‘fear.'"

Fear of people who look different and speak a different language. Fear of new faces, including their father's, now a naturalized citizen, some 20 years ago.

Hispanics began showing up in much larger numbers in the 1980s and 1990s to take jobs at places such as Fremont Beef and Hormel, two of this community's biggest employers.

Meatpacking towns Madison, Schuyler and Lexington are examples of other smaller places where Hispanics make up a much bigger share of the local population in Nebraska. But it was Fremont that started to move into a special and very visible place in July 2008 in the battle between local, state and national immigration forces.

In front of an audience of more than 1,000 people, the city council deadlocked 4-4 on an ordinance that would ban the hiring and harboring of residents without legal status in the United States.

Next came a petition drive to force a public vote that quickly reached the threshold of 3,000-plus signatures, a district court decision upholding a special election and, earlier this year, a Supreme Court decision supporting the lower court.

And now John Wiegert and Jerry Hart of the petitioning group Fremont for Illegal Immigration Enforcement are telling just about anybody who will listen that they've had enough.

"We've said this repeatedly," Wiegert said as he and Hart headed back to Fremont on Friday from a guest slot on an Omaha radio show. "We are not against immigration. We are against illegal aliens."

Opponents of the ordinance "still want to refer to them as immigrants," he said. "They are not immigrants. They are breaking the law."

Wiegert and Hart, who joined a third Fremont resident, Wanda Kotas, in filing the lawsuit to force an election, portray themselves as the little guy taking on Goliath.

"We've had to fight city officials," Wiegert said. "We've had to fight the Chamber of Commerce. We've had to fight the churches, the ACLU, Appleseed (the Lincoln-based nonprofit legal advocacy group). It's just the three of us having to fight against all these other groups."

Hart chimed in: "We're a grassroots organization, if you will, that was started with a couple of people with a petition idea because we felt the people need to have their say. And we're upset, because we feel cheated out of that."

Despite what they describe as an uneven match in power and resources, they don't regard defeat on Monday as a foregone conclusion. Far from it.

"I personally feel very confident about it," Wiegert said, "because just look across the border here. Look what's going on across the country. Look at Arizona, for example."

Arizona lawmakers recently created a firestorm by giving law enforcement the right to question a person's immigration status while investigating a crime under a "reasonable suspicion" standard.

Wiegert and Hart acknowledged that their own attempt at immigration enforcement is not without its weak points. For example, Fremont Beef and Hormel are both outside the city limits.

"Maybe there could be an ordinance to cover Dodge County," Hart said. "The other thing, when it passes, it sends out a message to illegal aliens that they're not welcome here."

Fremont City Attorney Dean Skokan was hunkered over his computer screen at City Hall when he was approached about what's ahead Monday.

"I do believe, if the ordinance passes, we will be sued by the ACLU and several other groups," Skokan said. "What their causes of action will be, you'll have to ask them."

He handed over a fact sheet that covers 21 points in a Q&A format, including one about the possibility of Fremont being denied legal coverage by an insurance risk pool its leaders have contributed to over the years.

He pointed to Hazleton, Pa., and Farmers Branch, Texas, as other cities that ran into huge legal bills and a similar denial problem in an immigration law-court challenge.

The fact sheet also suggests Fremont could face legal costs of $1 million a year - along with higher taxes, city employee layoffs or some combination of the two - if it's targeted by immigration advocacy groups.

Mike Nolan, executive director of the League Association of Risk Management in Lincoln, said the public-entity partner of the League of Nebraska Municipalities cannot offer Fremont any blanket assurances.

"The last thing we really want to do is abandon our clients," Nolan said. "We just don't want to do that. But it may be something we don't have any control over."

Risk pool rules cover some kinds of legal wrangles and not others.

Nolan also alluded to the possibility of "an astounding claim. And will this become one? I don't know."

Absentee voting in Fremont, as of Friday afternoon, was at 478, heavier than normal but not as heavy as the 531 absentee votes in the Republican primary battle for governor in 2006 between Tom Osborne and Dave Heineman.

Wiegert of the pro-ordinance group said those waiting to vote shouldn't pay undue attention to what the city presents as facts. He sees the forecast for legal costs, for example, as a gross exaggeration.

"When they say it will be millions and millions, that's an outright lie."

Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or ahovey@journalstar.com.

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