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Nebraska’s Illegal Immigration News

08/12/08 Bumpy road for proposed ban in Fremont

Published Saturday July 12, 2008
Bumpy road for proposed ban in Fremont

Fremont, Neb., has joined a wave of cities across the country so frustrated with the federal government’s immigration enforcement that they are writing local ordinances to drive illegal foreigners out of town.

A problem, civil rights and immigrant advocates said Friday, is that the Nebraska city of 25,000 also is setting itself up for legal challenges that elsewhere have cost taxpayers big bucks to defend.

Fremont’s proposed ordinance to ban renting to illegal immigrants contains some different wording than others thrown out by courts. But, said several attorneys including Omaha lawyer Amy Peck, the basic principles are the same.

“It’s may be a horse of a different color – but it’s still a horse,” said Peck, who sits on the national board of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Her firm and the American Civil Liberties Union in Nebraska said Friday that they’d consider a legal challenge if the Fremont City Council adopts the law.

Fremont City Attorney Dean Skokan, who drafted the law at the direction of the council, declined to comment until the council votes. That is expected Aug. 26.

The current version pertains to renting and harboring, although sponsoring Councilman Bob Warner said he will push for a ban on hiring as well.

No single event, place or person sparked Warner’s effort, but he said he was irritated with lax federal enforcement of immigration laws and Congress’ failure to update the system. Constituents, he said, shared his frustration.

And the final straw came when a Nebraska Legislature committee blocked full discussion of a governor-supported bill that would have required verification of immigration status for anyone seeking state benefits.

Gov. Dave Heinemann said Friday that he hadn’t read the Fremont ordinance but added, “Illegal immigrants should not be receiving in-state tuition benefits or any other state or local benefits to which they are not entitled.”

By all accounts, the Fremont ordinance – which is Nebraska’s first city-driven initiative aimed at banishing illegal immigrants – is in flux and could change before final reading.

The proposal that went to the council for a public hearing earlier this week calls for all renters, whether they were born in the U.S. or immigrated here, to obtain an occupancy license through the city.

Prospective renters would fill out an application verifying their legal right to be in the United States. The applications would be submitted to local police for verification and an occupancy license would be issued.

Every person occupying a rented home or apartment would have to hold an occupancy license at a cost of $5 each. A new license would be needed every time residents relocated to a different rental unit.

Providing false information would subject the license holder to a $500 fine. Those who occupied a rental unit without a valid license would be subject to the same fine.

Landlords would be required to see the license before renting, but the ordinance does not stipulate a penalty for landlords who fail to comply.

Norm Pflanz, attorney for the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, said he was confident that Fremont citizens will join in opposition once they understand the cost and full impact of the ordinance on their lives as well as those of immigrants.

Jonathan Blazer, attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, said certain local governments have spent years fighting for housing-related immigration ordinances.

I’m not aware of a single housing ordinance that a court has upheld,” he said.

Some local governments have adopted housing laws aimed at illegal immigrants, he said, but haven’t enforced them due to implementation costs. Laws in other towns haven’t been challenged.

In the case of Farmers Branch, Texas, the city has been embroiled in court for two years. A federal judge in May struck down a city ordinance designed to block apartment rentals to illegal immigrants. Officials tailored yet another ordinance to overcome legal issues, and now that faces a court challenge.

Federal judges have struck down ordinances in other municipalities, including Hazleton, Penn., the first town to enact laws barring illegal immigrants from working or renting homes.

On the other hand, Blazer cited a win for a St. Louis suburb that adopted an ordinance penalizing businesses that hire illegal immigrants. City officials in Valley Park, Mo., had been in court since passing the town’s first immigration-related law in 2006. The original law, later rescinded, fined landlords if they rented to illegal immigrants. The town then passed the law going after businesses.

In throwing out local ordinances, federal courts typically cite constitutional violations and anti-discrimination statutes. They explain that local governments are pre-empted from regulating immigration, as it is the federal government’s exclusive role.

Laurel Marsh, executive director of the ACLU in Nebraska, saw red flags in the Fremont call for a new license every time a resident moved to a different unit.

You can’t restrict people’s freedom of movement in this way,” she said. “We can make a pretty good argument that renters cannot be treated like second-class citizens.”

Warner said that right now he was more concerned with representing the many people who have urged him to continue his effort than he was with the threat of court battles. He said he received numerous supportive comments Friday, many from people and radio stations outside Nebraska.

What do you think the taxpayer cost is for the illegal immigrants in this country today?” he said. “Do you think there is a money tree out there?”

World-Herald staff writer Judith Nygren contributed to this report.

• Contact the writer: 444-1224,

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