Immigration Issue Stokes Competition In Fremont's City Council Race

Members of the Tea Party Patriots look on as candidates for Fremont's Ward 1 city council seat speak at the Keene Memorial Library. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET News)
Campaign signs for two of the seventeen people running for a city council seat in downtown Fremont. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET News)
Ashley Grohs, one of five candidates running to represent Ward 1 in Fremont, answers an audience question about why he voted to repeal Ordinance 5165 at a Tea Party Patriots meeting. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET News)
Gregory Smith, one of the five candidates running for the Ward 1 city council seat, voted not to repeal the housing portion of ordinance 5165 in the last special election. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET News)
Dev Sookram, one of five candidates running for Ward 1's city council seat, voted not to repeal the ordinance in the last special election. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET News)
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April 24, 2014 - 6:30am

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.”

What does Ordinance 5165 do?

The ordinance makes it illegal to rent a dwelling unit to or hire a undocumented resident in Fremont.

Employment provision: Fremont businesses are required to use the E-Verify Program to check their employees' immigration status before hiring.

Housing provision: All renters over 18 must obtain an occupancy license from the Fremont Police Department. Applicants must state their immigration status on the license application. Regardless of what a person puts as their immigration status, they will receive an occupancy license.

  • If a person states that they are a legal resident, they will receive an occupancy license.
  • If a person states they are not a legal resident, they will receive an occupancy license. The police will send the application to the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) Program. If SAVE determines the applicant does not have legal residency, the police will issue a deficiency notice giving the applicant 60 days to provide documentation if that is incorrect. If 60 days pass without response, the police will notify the applicant that their license will become invalid in 45 days.

Only the city of Fremont will have access to the applications filed. Landlords are required to obtain a copy of the renter's license, and the renter is required to keep their own copy.

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.

Increased competition

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.

History of Ordinance 5165

2008: Council member Bob Warner proposed to draft an ordinance dealing with illegal immigration in Fremont. After three readings, the city council tied in a vote on whether to pass Ordinance 5165. Mayor Edwards broke the tie to veto the ordinance.

2009: Fremont residents collected signatures and petitioned the city council to let residents vote on Ordinance 5165 in a special election.

2010: The city held a special election on the ordinance in June, and Fremont 57.32%  of voters approved the ordinance. In July, the ACLU and MALDEF each sued the city of Fremont challenging the fairness of the ordinance. The housing portion of the ordinance is halted while the suits were in being decided. In September, the city approved a budget to raise $750,000 for their legal defense fund by increasing city property taxes 5.8 cents/$100 in property value.

2012: In March, the employment provision of the ordinance went into effect.

2013: The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision to uphold Ordinance 5165 in the ACLU lawsuit against the city of Fremont.

2014: The city council proposed and held a second referendum on the ordinance asking voters to vote either yes to repeal or no to keep the ordinance: 59.5% voted no, 40.43% voted yes (with a voter turnout of 43.42%). On April 10, the housing provision of the ordinance went into effect.

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.



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