Scribner to vote on ordinance targeting illegal immigration

Main Street in Scribner. (Photo courtesy Google Maps)
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October 18, 2018 - 6:45am

Among the many decisions facing voters this fall, one in the eastern Nebraska town of Scribner taps into a national debate on immigration. And the issue also reflects concerns about change.


Standing on the brick-paved Main Street of Scribner, Nebraska, you’re surrounded by storefronts dating from the late 19th through the 20th century. At the end of the business district sits a building containing the city offices, built last year.

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Earlier this year, that building saw discussion of a very 21st century issue: a proposed ordinance aimed at preventing landlords from renting to, or employers from hiring, people in the country illegally. Ultimately, the city council decided to leave the issue up to voters.

“They thought it would be better to go to a vote of the people so that every citizen could be heard and would be able to voice their opinion on whether they wanted to go through with this ordinance or whether they would rather not go through with it,” City Administrator Elmer Armstrong said.

Ron Dierking (Photo courtesy KETV)

Among those supporting the ordinance is Ron Dierking, a retired farmer who lives just outside of town.

“I’m concerned about my town and my area, and the impact that some of this would have on my community and how it’d change the parameters and the makeup of our community,” Dierking said.

A new Costco chicken processing plant, employing about 800 people, is due to open next year in nearby Fremont. Dierking says that plays a huge role in his thinking.

“They’re suddenly going to have a lot of workers come in. They’re going to be hired from outside the community, probably, (and) won’t have any connections to the community other than just being a worker at that plant. And what I’m concerned about is illegal immigrants coming into our town with no basis for helping pay for projects or support of our community,” he said.

Jessica Kolterman, spokeswoman for Lincoln Premium Poultry, which will run the plant for Costco, says such concerns are misplaced.

“It’s very important to us that everyone is legal. It’s very important to us that people have a good work ethic. It’s very important to us that people who are working with us have those same values that we have. We don’t ask questions other than ‘Are we obeying the law? Yes. Are we upholding the code of ethics that our company has developed? Yes.’ And we have a lot of different partners to do that,” Kolterman said.

 

Derek Wallen (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

The issue has spilled over onto other local disputes. Derek Wallen is a property owner who bought Scribner’s former assisted living facility and is converting it into apartments. Wallen has tangled with local officials, who he says are motivated by fear.

“Their scare is that I’m going to fill the place with immigrants. And their town is going to be inundated with non-white people, that which is 97 percent white in this town. And they’re just scared,” Wallen said, adding his target renters are actually older people and people with disabilities.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates last year 95.7 percent of Scribner’s 857 residents were white. Scribner Mayor Ken Thomas says the dispute with Wallen centered on requiring him to have individual electric meters for the apartments, and the town’s racial mix had nothing to do with it.

“To be painted with this big broad brush, just because we’re a certain color, that makes us guilty of all racist acts. Really? Isn’t that racism?” Thomas asked.

Mayor Ken Thomas (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

One group keeping a close watch on the ballot measure, and considering a lawsuit that could be costly for both sides if it passes, is ACLU Nebraska. Executive Director Danielle Conrad says she appreciates people’s frustration, but the ordinance is not the way to go.

“We’re not going to solve our broken immigration system by passing divisive, misguided, suspect local ordinances. This is an issue that Congress needs to act on,” Conrad said.

Voters in Fremont passed an identical ordinance eight years ago. But Robin White, a legal secretary who helps administer it, says she doesn’t know what effect it’s having. White says the city can’t ask people applying to rent housing for ID, but the federal government requires ID to check people’s immigration status.

Danielle Conrad (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Scribner ordinance supporter Ron Dierking says that shouldn’t stop people from voting for it.

“The federal government can change their attitudes overnight. And once we do not pass this, and we say ‘Well, gee our hands are tied’ and then down the block a little ways, all of a sudden they say ‘Well, yeah we changed the law,’ you can’t go back, because those people are in your community already,” Dierking said. 

Scribner landlord Derek Wallen says that kind of thinking is wrongheaded.

“Diversity is what we need to be teaching our children first and foremost. If our children had the opportunity to go to a third world country and visit for two weeks and stay amongst the citizens of those villages, they would come home with a hugely different view on life the way we live it, and how other people are treated and should be treated,” Wallen said. 

Conrad says the proposed ordinance is part of what she calls a larger “war on immigrants” that starts with the president.

For full text of proposed ordinance, click here.

“Whether it’s an attack on those beautiful ‘Dreamers’ – those DACA youth -- whether it’s a Muslim ban, whether it’s the horrific family separation happening at our southern border, whether its Fremont or Scribner, it’s absolutely having a chilling impact and effect on our immigrant and refugee neighbors,” Conrad said.

But Thomas says whether the town approves the ordinance or not, it doesn’t deserve criticism for considering it.

“The people in Scribner are not xenophobes and we’re not racist, even though I’ve been accused of that by people from outside of our town that don’t know me or don’t know the people in this town,” Thomas said. “They don’t know us. I wish they did. (There are) a lot of good people in this town – tons of them.”

How those people come down on this issue will be determined in a little less than three weeks on Election Day.    

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