The city of Fremont, in east-central NE, recently started to implement a housing ordinance that makes it illegal for landlords to rent to undocumented immigrants. But its impact may reach beyond housing into the city council election this spring.
On a recent Tuesday evening Fremont’s public library played host to three candidates running for city council. That isn’t unusual, except that the candidates here are just three of five candidates running to represent Ward 1.
First to speak at this Tea Party Patriot meeting is Gregory Smith, a cabinet maker. Then Dev Sookram, chair of the city planning commission and manager at Johnson Cycle, a motorcycle and ATV dealer in town. Smith and Sookram both say right away they voted NOT to repeal the housing ordinance. The ordinance, which voters approved twice in 2010 and 2014, requires renters over 18 to apply for an occupancy license with the Fremont Police before renting house or apartment. To get a license, renters have to state their immigration status on an application.
Ashley Grohs, a businessman and the third candidate to speak tonight, doesn’t mention the ordinance during his speech. But when asked about it, he said, “I did vote yes.”
That got everyone’s attention. The audience immediately asked Grohs to clarify why and what he would do instead. In an earlier interview, Grohs explained, “I didn’t believe the law did anything itself. You know? There was no teeth to the law. It didn’t make sense for us to put in place.”
Taking on immigration at the local level?
Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, a professor of Politics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, notes that immigration ordinances like Fremont’s reflect people’s frustrations with national policy. “It’s the symbolic value of the community taking a stand against the immigration system,” Benjamin-Alvarado said
But Benjamin-Alvarado says it usually takes outside support from groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) to turn that frustration into actual law, like Fremont’s ordinance or Arizona’s state law.
“I think that the frustration of the people of Fremont at the failure of the federal government to institute real immigration policy reform is completely justified. It’s just my analysis had they not had that outside assistance, it never would have gotten to the point where it is today,” Benjamin-Alvarado said.
Whether it’s symbolic or not, this measure is having a real impact on Fremont, though it’s hard to say if it’s the intended one.
“What it has done is it has created a real impetus on the part of some people to become much more civically engaged, people that are both for and against,” Benjamin-Alvarado said.
This year the city council race has become a forum on how council members should represent their community — even those who might be undocumented. Seventeen people filed to run for city council in Fremont this year. In the last council race, only eight people ran.
Some in the community are upset at the council members who voted to put repeal of the ordinance on a special ballot this year. That includes retiring ward 1 incumbent Steve Navarette. Sookram isn’t running because of the ordinance, but he does think that it did influence this year’s election.
“I have a hunch that a lot of folks were really upset. They were real upset that this had to be brought back up again,” Sookram said.
Smith filed to run just three days after the City Council approved holding that second vote.
“My main reason is because of the voice of the people isn’t being heard. I feel that our current city council is trying to pick and choose the laws they want to obey,” Smith said.
Every candidate in ward 1 has had to talk about how they voted in the last election. Their positions on the ordinance reflect the split in the community.
Michael Wilson, a student at Midland University and one of the candidates not at the Tea Party meeting, stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from Smith.
“It’s bad public policy at its finest. And it’s not enforceable and not measurable. So I got involved to hopefully make better decisions in the future and also work to repeal that ordinance,” Wilson said.
Somewhere in between Smith and Wilson is Mark Legband, a retired schoolteacher and the fifth candidate in the Ward 1 race. He won’t say how he voted on repealing the ordinance, but he says he stands behind the results of the last vote.
“It doesn’t matter how I feel or how I felt. To me, it’s a done deal. Let’s move forward and work together to solve the problems and just work together,” Legband said.
Beyond the election
What all the candidates agree on is that the ordinance has divided Fremont. Healing Fremont will likely take time and a lot more than the results of this election. At the Tea Party meeting, the audience makes it clear that they still don't trust their council members.
“The people did have to speak twice and I don’t even know that they’ve been heard twice,” said one audience member responding to Grohs at the Tea Party meeting.
At a different meeting at St Patrick’s Church where ACLU Nebraska gave information about what the ordinance can and can’t do, Mayra Hernandez Garcia has lived in Fremont for two years.
She has a different reason to be suspicious of the city. She’s not sure how the ordinance will affect her friends in town. “I live with people that fear this whole ordinance thing. Well, for their sake, I would move with them. Because they’re not entirely sure who they can talk to. Who they can trust,” Garcia said.
For now, the ordinance is in place and everyone is waiting to see how it will play out, both in the election and in the community.