June 21, 2010 -- The small town of Fremont, Neb. -- barely 7 miles wide and with a population of 25,000 -- has rarely garnered national attention. But today this Midwestern community sent ripples through the country as voters overwhelmingly voted for a controversial ordinance designed to ferret out illegal immigrants.
The ordinance aims to zero in on illegal aliens in the workplace and at their temporary homes. Under the ordinance, renters would have to apply for a license, which includes a police check of the applicant's legal status. Undocumented aliens would be turned over to the federal government.
Additionally, businesses would be required to check the legal status of their workers through the federal E-verify database and would face penalties for hiring undocumented citizens.
Unofficial results from the Dodge County Clerk's Office showed voters approving the measure 57 percent to 43 percent. With approximately 45 percent voter turnout, 3,906 ballots were cast in favor of the ordinance and 2,908 against it.
The move in Nebraska comes at a time when Washington lawmakers are embroiled in a heated debate over how to proceed with immigration reform. Tensions are high after Arizona enacted a much publicized law that allows police to question people about their immigration status if there is "reasonable suspicion."
What's different about the Nebraska ordinance is that it covers a town that is nowhere near a U.S. border and which has only a small immigrant population, mostly Hispanic. According to the U.S. Census bureau, 93 percent of Fremont's population is white and just 7 percent is Hispanic, although that number has grown steadily in the last decade as the city's white population has shrunk.
Many of the immigrants work at the meatpacking plants, the major employers in the area. But few of these meatpacking plants are actually located within the Fremont city limits and may not be subject to the new rules.
Supporters of the ordinance charged that a growing number of illegal immigrants are taking away jobs from locals and costing the city money.
Opponents said Hispanics are being unfairly targeted in a city that doesn't even have an issue with illegal immigrants, and that because many of the meatpacking plants are located outside of Fremont, the new rules won't even impact them.
At about 5 percent, Fremont's unemployment rate is lower than the national rate of about 9.7 percent and at par with the state average.
"What's driving all of this is just fear of the unknown. I think that people are not aware of the complexity of the entire immigration system," said Krista Kjeldgaard, a former teacher and now a volunteer at Fremont One Future, which opposes the ordinance. "I think that's been watered down to be a very simple issue of illegal and legal and it's not that simple. It's far more complex than that."
Supporters argue that there is a need to enforce immigration laws, and if that has to be done at the city level, so be it.
"In principle, a community that has a relatively modest immigration problem is precisely the place where this kind of measure is necessary to make sure it doesn't get to the levels that other communities are facing," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies. "What this really shows is that the public wants some order in the immigration system."
Nebraska may not be a border state but immigration has become an increasingly contentious topic. State Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont has said he may introduce a bill in the Nebraska legislature that is similar to the Arizona law.
Nebraska Braces for Costly Fight Over Immigration Ordinance
The city of Fremont is bracing for a costly fight to defend the ordinance. Similar measures passed in Farmers Branch, Texas and Hazleton, Pennsylvania, have been bogged down in costly legal battles for years.
"We don't have any choice. If we are required to fund these efforts to defend the ordinance, we'll do so and try to do so as economically as we can," Dean Skokan, the city's attorney, told ABC News. "It will be a significant budget impact."
The city said it must also factor in costs for police overtime before, during and after the election amid threats of clashes between opposing groups. Based on costs in the other two towns, the city of Fremont estimates paying $3 million, or about $1 million per year, which the city will fund through a combination of tax increases and city job cuts.
The Fremont City Council rejected the immigration proposal in 2008 but the State Supreme Court gave the green light for a vote by the citizens themselves, and supporters raised more than enough signatures to bring the ordinance to the ballot in a special election.
Groups from around the country, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (Maldef) said before the ordinance passed that they were considering legal challenges if it did.
As in the case of Arizona, opponents in Nebraska argue that such laws set by the city or state violate the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, and also violate an individual's due process rights.
The Fremont ordinance sets a "dangerous precedent," said Laurel S. Marsh, executive director of ACLU Nebraska, with the license required by a renter for every move becoming a "handy tracking mechanism."
Attorney Kris Kobach, who helped draft the Fremont ordinance and has helped write and defend similar measures around the country as well as the Arizona state law, is confident the ordinance will withstand legal challenges. He cited the example of Valley Park, Mo., where a similar ruling was upheld by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which also covers Fremont.
Kobach said lack of enforcement on the federal level is driving the trend toward states and cities taking immigration matters into their own hands.
"When the federal government is not adequately enforcing the immigration laws, the cost of non-enforcement usually -- predominantly falls at the city and state level," Kobach told ABC News, citing a 2007 study by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which calculated that the fiscal deficit of illegal immigrants totaled $89.1 billion. "It's that cost that drives the cities and states to act. They bear the ultimate burden for the failure to enforce our immigration laws."
Even though a state like Nebraska is not on the U.S. border, said Kobach, it is being burdened by the impact of illegal immigrants who are often smuggled in to work in meatpacking plants.
"Every state is a border state now, to some degree," he said. "You have different states experiencing illegal immigration in a different way."