ACLU, Latino civil-rights group sue Fremont, Neb. to stop enforcement of illegal-immigrant law

By Margery A. Beck, AP
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

2 groups sue Nebraska city over immigration law

FREMONT, Neb. — The two lawsuits filed Wednesday against a small Nebraska city for its ban on hiring and renting to illegal immigrants worried some in the community that it would only worsen tensions over the new ordinance.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund, also known as MALDEF, filed lawsuits against Fremont, saying the voter-approved ordinance amounted to discrimination.

“I’m so disappointed that a law like this could have passed here. I always thought in this day and age laws are meant to prevent discrimination, not encourage it,” said Mario Martinez, a Mexican American who lives in Fremont with his wife and young child.

The ordinance has divided much of the town. Supporters argue the measure was necessary to make up for what they see as lax federal law enforcement. Opponents say it could fuel discrimination. Both lawsuits filed Wednesday may not quell the debate, but the civil-rights groups hope they will end the ban.

“This law encourages discrimination and racial profiling against Latinos and others who appear to be foreign-born, including U.S. citizens,” said Amy Miller, legal director of ACLU Nebraska. “We’re going to do all we can to make sure this extreme law, which would lead to individuals losing housing and jobs because of their appearance and language ability, never goes into effect.”

Fremont City Attorney Dean Skokan said early Wednesday he couldn’t comment on the lawsuits because he hadn’t seen them. He did not return later telephone calls. Officials, though, anticipated challenges to the ban.

“We expect a minimum of about three lawsuits,” Skokan said. He did not elaborate.

The ordinance is to go into effect July 29. It put Fremont on the list with Arizona and other cities in the national debate over immigration regulations. Arizona’s sweeping law also takes effect July 29 and requires police who stop people suspected of violating a law to check the immigration status of anyone they think is in the country illegally.

Fremont’s ban worries Martinez.

At one time the city was a nice place, he said, but he’s noticed more hostility toward Latinos in the past dozen years. And recently, it’s gotten worse.

“Fremont feels like a completely different town now,” Martinez said. “I’m as much a part of this community as anyone, but now I get hostile looks from people like they want me to get out, and my wife has been told to go back to Mexico because of her accent.”

The ban requires employers in the city to use the federal E-Verify database to ensure employees are allowed to work. It also requires potential renters to apply for a license to rent. The application process will force Fremont officials to check whether the renters are in the country legally. If they are found to be illegal, they will not be issued a rent license.

Both lawsuits charge that Fremont’s law is at odds with the constitutional mandate imposing a uniform federal immigration enforcement system. The lawsuits also contend the ordinance violates the federal Fair Housing Act and the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution, among other things.

“The Fremont ordinance is so vague, they actually are talking about people like me,” said Shirley Mora James of Lincoln, the attorney who filed the MALDEF lawsuit and is a third-generation Mexican American. “If I want to live in Fremont, and I want to rent, I will have to prove my citizenship. I believe that’s a violation of my civil rights. I don’t think after two generations in this country that I have to prove I am a U.S. citizen.”

Fremont, which lies 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 of city limits. Both plants say they already use the E-Verify system.

Hormel officials have said there have been no federal immigration investigations at the Fremont plant. In March, federal authorities indicted more than a dozen people on immigration violations after an investigation at the Fremont Beef plant. Fremont Beef did not immediately return a message left Wednesday.

Communities that have passed laws like Fremont’s have struggled to enforce them because of legal challenges and faced expensive legal bills. Hazleton, Pa., passed an ordinance in 2006 to fine landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and deny permits to businesses hiring them. The Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch also has tried for years to enforce a ban on landlords renting to illegal immigrants. Federal judges struck down both ordinances, but both are on appeal.

Fremont officials have been watching those towns and others that have passed similar bans. City officials have estimated that Fremont’s costs of implementing the ordinance — including the legal fees, employee overtime and improved computer software — will average $1 million a year.

Ken Ewald, 62, is white and has lived in Fremont for three decades. He said he doesn’t understand why the city is getting such a hard time and that the federal government is failing to enforce immigration laws, so the city is stepping up.

“The law is the law,” he said. “There shouldn’t be a fight about it.”

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