Austin not likely to follow Nebraska’s lead on immigration ordinance

Published 7:32 am Thursday, June 24, 2010

Austin probably will not follow suit as a small Nebraska meatpacking town moves to enact a controversial illegal immigration ordinance.

On Monday, Fremont, Neb., joined Arizona in the center of the national illegal immigration debate after voters in the community of 25,000 approved a ban on hiring and renting property to illegal immigrants.

The measure will require would-be renters to apply for a license from the city. Officials must refuse to issue a license to applicants found to be in the country illegally. The ordinance also requires businesses to use the federal E-Verify database to ensure employees are allowed to work.

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Austin mayor Tom Stiehm said Wednesday he understood why the Nebraska city took the issue into its own hands, but does not think it would be a wise move in Austin.

“The federal government is refusing to address the issue, and until they do, we will see more and more local governments doing that,” Stiehm said. “Everywhere they’ve passed something like this, it’s been overturned — forcing cities to raise taxes and cut services to pay to defend it.”

Fremont officials have put the cost of the ordinance — including legal fees, employee overtime and computer software — at about $1 million a year.

The ordinance was modeled after one in Hazleton, Pa. which passed in 2006 but has yet to be enforced while legal battles tally up a now $5 million bill — most of which the city’s insurer refused to pay; the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) promised to file a lawsuit to block enforcement of the Fremont proposal that roughly 57 percent of voters supported.

In 2008, a federal judge ruled that a similar law in Farmers Branch, Texas was unconstitutional.

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota ACLU, said legal battles follow such measures because of exactly that.

“This (Fremont’s) ordinance usurps the federal power,” he said. “Who’s a citizen and who’s not a citizen is not a local issue, it’s a federal issue.”

Spokesperson and board member for the Austin Area Landlord Association Peter J. Grover said Monday that he does not think it should be a landlord’s issue.

“As a landlord, I’d find it difficult to be in a position where I’d have to verify whether a person is here legally or illegally,” he said. “It’s puts landlords in a tough spot. I’m concerned about denying people housing because of their immigration status.”

City council members Marian Clennon and John Martin each said they believe the federal government is indirectly shoveling the issue onto state and city governments.

“The sad thing is the federal government has stuck its head in the sand forcing cities and states to come up with their own solutions,” Martin said.

Clennon thought such an ordinance would not be feasible for Austin to implement.

“We are not looking for more things for municipal workers to do. That is for sure,” she said.

Martin said though he does not completely agree with Arizona’s law or Fremont’s ordinance, if there is no change on the part of the federal government, he might want Austin to discuss an ordinance — but he can’t see one being passed.

He explained: “It’s because of who the largest employer is. How much money they have. How powerful they are.”

Proponents of the Fremont ordinance argued that jobs at the nearby Fremont Beef and Hormel meatpacking plants are going to illegal immigrants who they fear could drain community resources.

While Fremont’s Latino population has surged in the past two decades, the city’s 4.9 percent unemployment matches the rest of Nebraska — at nearly half of the national unemployment rate of 9.7 percent.

Because Fremont Beef and Hormel are outside of city limits, Samuelson called the ordinance nothing but a political move, a “wedge issue.”

“Why would a city go to the expense and trouble of doing this, if the companies won’t even be affected?”

Political maneuver or not, Stiehm said he thinks it will be to Austin’s advantage to watch Nebraska’s ordinance unfold.

“Maybe it will set a new precedent. From what I have seen so far, there hasn’t been any advantages to cities doing this.”

Election officials in Fremont are expected to certify the vote on Monday.

For more on Fremont’s ordinance, check these links:

City of Fremont’s information on proposed ordinance

Dodge County Election Commissioner