FREMONT — This eastern Nebraska town of about 26,000 souls is known for its picturesque sandpit lakes, for setting a Guinness World Record with a 1,652-pound Spam sandwich and for a housing law that thrust it to the front lines of the national immigration debate.

But Fremont voters will decide Tuesday whether to do away with one of those distinctions, the controversial law that bans landlords from renting to illegal immigrants and requires all renters to get occupancy licenses from the police department.

In June 2010, residents approved the city ordinance, which also requires local businesses to use the federal E-Verify system to check the immigration status of new hires. The vote made headlines across the nation.

The issue has polarized the town, which has two anchor industries: meat processor Hormel Foods and farm implement manufacturer Valmont Industries. Both are outside the city limits, and report about 1,400 and 1,500 employees, respectively.

The housing portion of the ordinance never has been enforced.

It was first put on hold while federal courts sorted out a legal challenge brought by attorneys representing landlords, tenants, employers, the ACLU Nebraska Foundation and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year upheld the city law, reversing an Omaha judge’s ruling that some provisions were preempted by the Immigration and Nationality Act and violated the Fair Housing Act.

After the court refused to rehear the case, the City Council set a second public referendum and suspended enforcement until after the polls close Tuesday. Those pushing for repeal of the housing portion of the law fear future lawsuits and say it paints the town as prejudiced and intolerant, which harms development efforts.

The town's economic development arm, the Greater Fremont Development Council, and the Fremont Area Chamber of Commerce, have both said the city law needs to go.

Supporters of it are frustrated and angry that after months of gathering signatures during the dead of winter, a resounding victory at the polls with 57 percent approval in 2010 and fighting off legal challenges, the council has now opted for a do-over.

“We are about as far away from racists as you can get. We’re for legal immigration," said John Wiegert, a 48-year-old lifelong Fremont resident and fifth-grade teacher. "We just want people to abide by our laws.”

If the housing law is repealed, he said, illegal immigrants will see it as an invitation to move to Fremont.

“If we lose this and they win," he said, "then we basically become a sanctuary city.”

Both sides accuse the other of distorting the truth and even spreading outright lies.

A tough issue

Ivadene Bowman, who was born in Germany as the daughter of an American serviceman and moved to Fremont eight years ago with her husband, said she doesn’t talk about the ordinance at the downtown shop where she works — or in public at all — for fear of offending someone.

“It’s a tough issue, and a lot of people are divided on it,” said Bowman, who believes both sides make valid points and said she just wants what's best for the town.

That reluctance to talk was the first thing Virginia Meyer and three other women decided to tackle when they created Fremont Yes! The women met at a November council meeting and planned their strategy around kitchen tables while their children played in the background.

They made phone calls, raised money, wrote letters and ordered yard signs.

Meyer, who works for the nonprofit Center for Rural Affairs, said Fremont has many great things going for it — great outdoor recreation, Midland College, proximity to Omaha shopping — but the immigration ordinance overshadows it all.

“It’s like a little black rain cloud crowding out the good things about our town,” she said. “Having the housing ordinance in place hurts the town, and it’s not addressing undocumented people.”

Meyer calls the measure toothless.

Landlords can apply for the occupancy license on behalf of tenants, who can still lie about their legal status. Authorities will not check the validity of those who claim to be American citizens. And people who can't prove their legal status in the United States can live just outside the city limits or in neighboring towns such as North Bend, Valley or Arlington.

And there could be other collateral damage, Meyer said.

Earlier this month, a full-page ad signed by the directors of six assisted-living centers ran in the local paper, urging people to vote for repeal because they fear the law could require them to get a new occupancy permit every time they move a resident into a new room.

Supporters of the ordinance have said it would not affect senior living centers. The city's attorneys have been mum on the issue.

A model

State Sen. Charlie Janssen, who was on the City Council when the ordinance was proposed in 2008, said it doesn’t hurt Fremont. Opponents are “hiding behind a straw man,” he said.

“I’ve heard from people across the state that we are a model for them, for standing up and doing what is right,” said Janssen, who earlier this month withdrew from the Republican primary gubernatorial race.

He said the measure should stand, and he plans to vote to keep it.

“The thing that really disturbs me the most about this," he said, "… the City Council has basically said, 'Your vote does not count, and we’re going to take that out of your hands. We know better than you.' When people speak, you listen to them.”

Fremont Mayor Scott Getzschman calls the ordinance hateful and discriminatory and said the publicity has hurt Fremont’s ability to attract new businesses. He said at least one company has said it eliminated the town as a potential place to open a shop because of it.

Wiegert, who helped gather signatures for the first vote, questioned the mayor’s honesty and said if a company doesn’t want to come to Fremont because of the anti-illegal-immigration ordinance, it’s probably not the type of business he would want in town.

“You don’t want those businesses in your town that are coming here to exploit cheap labor,” he said.

History

The fight started in 2008, when then-Councilman Bob Warner proposed the city adopt an ordinance to take on illegal immigration. He offered a draft written with the help of Kris Kobach, a key author of strict immigration measures in Alabama and Arizona.

Parts of the Arizona law were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012. Kobach, now Kansas secretary of state, defended the Fremont law in federal court.

Warner said residents were frustrated with federal authorities’ failure to deal with people who come into the United States illegally. He was hearing complaints about people without insurance speaking Spanish in hospital emergency rooms and the need for interpreters at an annual kindergarten gathering where kids and parents meet teachers, he said.

His proposal drew such a crowd that city leaders moved a second hearing on it to the high school auditorium. After hours of public testimony, the council waived a final reading and voted 4-4 on it.

Then-Mayor Donald “Skip” Edwards ended the night with an emotional speech capped with a no vote that broke the tie.

Edwards, who since has died, said at the time that the decision weighed heavily on him. He told the crowd he opposed illegal immigration, but said his vote wasn’t about that. It was about fear of opening a legal Pandora’s box full of lawsuits that could bury the city.

The issue made it to a public vote two years later.

Since then, the City Council has levied, collected and set aside almost $1.5 million to deal with costs associated with the ordinance, of which about $184,000 has been spent, including $111,438 in legal fees and $72,612 in enforcing the E-Verify portion of the law, according to a document on the city's website.

Living divided

Maribel Lango moved to Fremont in 1998 after graduating from Columbus High School. At the time, the number of Hispanic people in town could be measured in the hundreds. The U.S. Census in 1990 recorded 232 Hispanics in all of Dodge County.

Lango was born in Mexico, moved to California as a toddler and to Columbus when she was 12. She became a U.S. citizen more than 10 years ago and works as a dental hygienist.

The first time she walked into a Fremont McDonald’s, people stared, she remembers. At St. Patrick’s Catholic Church back then, Hispanic families took up only three pews.

By 2010, Fremont’s Hispanic population had ballooned to 3,149, growing 190 percent since 2000. Today, Hispanics now make up nearly 12 percent of the city’s total population, and Lango said they fill the pews during Sunday afternoon Spanish Mass at St. Patrick's.

Lango said she still gets looks when she goes certain places, like a bar down the street from where she works that is popular with older white people, but now the looks are more suspicious and less curious.

Fear rippled through Hispanics here when the ordinance first came up for a vote in 2010, said Mayra Gonzalez, who runs the downtown bakery, Tortilleria Anita & Taqueria, with her husband.

Gonzalez, who wears a white apron and has her hair bundled up under a net as she sells breads and pastries from behind a counter, said her sales dipped during the weeks surrounding the vote. People stayed home, worried about being profiled and harassed by police.

In March 2010, a few months before the vote, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 17 people for immigration violations at Fremont Beef, which employs more than 280 people.

“The whole environment, it was really hostile," Gonzalez said. "People would rather stay home.”

When mass arrests and harassment by local police failed to happen, she said, the feeling passed.

Gonzalez, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Mexico, said the atmosphere in town now is completely different.

In the bakery, she paused to take money from a man and woman buying pastries, speaking to them in Spanish and pointing to a nearby shelf with literature urging people to vote yes on Tuesday.

They each picked up a Spanish-language flier before walking out the door.

Gonzalez likes Fremont. The Hispanic community is tight-knit, and neighbors take time to speak to each other. But for outsiders, the town remains branded a hostile and intolerant place, she said.

“It is really nice here with the lakes," Gonzalez said. "But my family, they won’t come here, because they say, ‘Oh, no. there will be racists.’”

Reach Nicholas Bergin at 402-473-7304 or nbergin@journalstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/LJSBergin.