FREMONT -- Sunlight glinted off Lyle George’s bald head as he walked into the Dodge County Courthouse on Thursday, ready to go to jail but hoping the judge would be feeling generous.
On May 15, George showed up at the Fremont Municipal Building to stage a one-man sit-in to protest the city’s controversial housing ordinance aimed at stopping illegal immigrants from renting homes here. But he showed up too late. The office already was closed.
So he went back the next day.
After listening to his spiel, the employee behind the city service counter told George he probably wanted to be on the second floor where the administrative offices are and walked him up the stairs.
There, the Nebraska farm boy who was transplanted to Seattle 20 years ago sat peacefully in a chair and chatted with city employees until the building closed.
When City Attorney Paul Payne and a couple of police officers asked him to leave so they could lock up for the night, George politely refused, was arrested and spent three hours behind bars wearing fashionable jail-issued orange clothing and black underwear.
He was charged with misdemeanor trespassing, punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of as much as $1,000.
It was George's first protest and his first time in jail. On Thursday, he told County Judge Kenneth Vampola he was willing to risk his own liberty to stand up for the liberty of others.
"I'm trying to shine a light on a situation I don't want to see spread," he said.
Fremont residents thrust their small town of 27,000 into the forefront of the national debate on immigration in 2010, when 57 percent of voters gave a thumbs-up to an ordinance that requires all renters get a $5 occupancy license and for businesses to use the federal E-Verify system to check the immigration status of new hires.
The license application asks about citizenship or for an identification number to prove the person is in the country legally. Residents reaffirmed their support of the law in a special election in February, when nearly 60 percent of voters cast ballots to keep it.
Since the law went into effect in April, police have issued 493 licenses, said Police Chief Jeff Elliott. Fremont has about 3,000 rental units.
Landlords who rent to people without a license risk a $100 fine. Elliott said the police have ticketed no landlords because they have not been told of anyone renting to a person without a license.
Seventeen of those who filled out license applications said they are not legal residents of the United States. City ordinance requires the police to check with the federal government to determine whether those people are in the country legally.
Elliott said the checks are on hold until the city can work out an agreement with federal authorities for the use of the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements Program.
But Mayor Scott Getzschman said even if an agreement is reached, the license application doesn't ask for enough information to verify legal status.
Getzschman opposed the ordinance and campaigned against it leading up to the February special election. At the time, he called it hateful and said it hurt the city's economic development efforts.
On Wednesday, Getzschman said few people in town had heard of George’s protest and arrest. He also said it's too early to tell how the ordinance will affect the city.
George, who says he has Nebraska dirt permanently fused under his nails from growing up the oldest of six on a farm north of Dixon, comes back to the state a few times a year to visit his mother in a Crete nursing home.
He said he cares about Nebraska and was taken aback when he read about the illegal immigration law.
“Rights are not something you vote on," said the 57-year-old real estate salesman. "That is why they are called rights. How can you make just being, illegal?”
George said Fremont residents are good people with a bad law, which he compared to Germany requiring Jews to register at the outset of the Holocaust and the United States rounding up Japanese after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“It is clearly an attempt to marginalize anyone who is browner than the average person here,” he said.
Former Fremont Councilman Bob Warner calls George’s opinions misinformed. The city ordinance seeks to address a crime -- people in the country illegally -- and isn’t discriminatory, he said.
A federal appeals court upheld the Fremont ordinance last year, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Warner also criticized a fair housing study commissioned by the Fremont City Council before the February vote that found 16.8 percent of residents surveyed experienced housing discrimination and 20.8 percent knew someone who had been discriminated against. The firm that did the study, Michigan-based ASK Development Solutions Inc., held public meetings and focus groups and did surveys and in-person interviews.
The council opted to have the study done after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is a source of community development block grants, criticized a 2011 state housing study that didn’t mention the city’s illegal immigration ordinance.
Fremont spokeswoman Jean Kaup-Van Iperen said the recent study will help city officials prevent discrimination and develop educational materials for residents, businesses and landlords while continuing to receive federal grant dollars. The city is in the midst of a 30-day comment period on the study.
During his bench trial Thursday, George pleaded not guilty to the trespassing charge and argued the city’s clocks were inaccurate and his arrest might have happened before 4:30 p.m., when the building closed.
Judge Vampola said the time didn't matter and fined George $150, the same amount he would have had to pay if he had waived the trial and just mailed in a check to pay the ticket.
George said the fine and three hours in jail were worth getting his message out.
“I don’t know if I’m going to make a difference here ...," he said. "But I took one for the team if nothing else.”
After paying his fine and stopping by the Blue Bottle Coffee House to chat with a handful of supporters, George left Fremont for Wayne and the annual Chicken Show, where he planned to perform with the Chickendales, a group of full-figured men who dance without shirts while sporting chicken masks made from paper bags.
George writes about his views and experience as a protester at www.bigotryisbad.com.