Town Votes To Adopt Illegal Immigration Ban

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Voters in Fremont, Nebraska have approved a referendum that prevents landlords from leasing apartments to illegal immigrants, and stops businesses from hiring them. Guest host Tony Cox speaks with Fred Knapp a reporter for NET News in Lincoln, Nebraska.

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

A small city in eastern Nebraska may have set a new tone in the debate over illegal immigration in this country. On Monday, and after a two-year very public debate, voters in Fremont, Nebraska, population 25,000, approved a referendum that bars landlords from renting to the undocumented and bans businesses from hiring them. Renters will now need to provide information to police and obtain occupancy licenses. Businesses must use a federal database to check for illegal immigrants.

Fred Knapp is a reporter for NET News, public radio covering the state of Nebraska. He's tracked immigration issues and this referendum for a couple of years now. Fred, nice to have you.

Mr. FRED KNAPP (Reporter, NET News): Well, it's nice to be here.

COX: How did this referendum affect residents? And for that matter, how did it affect the people of the state of Nebraska?

Mr. KNAPP: Well, it's obviously gotten a lot of attention from people around the state and around the country. In Fremont itself, it's caused a great deal of concern, particularly among Hispanic residents who lived there for years and all of sudden find themselves possibly the object of measured design to get rid of them.

COX: Can you talk about the language of the referendum and where that came from?

Mr. KNAPP: Well, one of the people that's been involved in a number of these measures across the country helped draft this one as well. Kris Kobach, who is actually a candidate for secretary of state in the state of Kansas and a professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, he defends it and he says it's constitutional and we'll just see now that it's going to court.

COX: What is the driving force behind this? I know that in Fremont the population is estimated to be about 25,000, as we said, 2,000 of whom are Latinos. Is it meant to drive the Latinos who are there out? Or just to prevent more from coming in?

Mr. KNAPP: Well, the sponsors of the petition drive that put this on the ballot go to great lengths to say they're not anti-immigrant, they're anti-illegal immigrant. They cite things like rising crime, costs for English as a second language in the school system, interpreters in the courts, that sort of thing. Of those 2,000 Hispanic people in Fremont, about 700 are non-citizens, according to the U.S. Census.

But the census doesn't track people's legal status. So opponents to this ordinance say that the vast majority of Hispanics in Fremont are there either legally as U.S. citizens or as residents.

COX: There are some exceptions to this new law, are there not? What are they?

Mr. KNAPP: Well, the main loophole, if you will, is that it applies only within the city limits of Fremont. Whereas the two main businesses that appear to be targeted, two meat packing plants that have attracted a lot of immigrant workers are outside of the city limits, as are a number of the housing areas where immigrants live. So this ordinance will not apply to those areas.

COX: Can the city afford the cost of what is expected to be a very expensive lawsuit filed by the Nebraska ACLU?

Mr. KNAPP: Well, city officials were trying to make the point that they would either have to increase taxes or lay off some city workers. They estimate based on the experience of other towns that have passed similar ordinances, Hazleton, Pennsylvania and Farmers Branch, Texas, that legal costs could be up to a million dollars a year for the next three years to defend this.

COX: Is this the most restrictive law of its kind that has been passed in Nebraska?

Mr. KNAPP: Well, it is. It's the first one of its kind at the local level. There has been a law passed at the state level that prohibits companies doing business with the state or requires them to use the same federal database, the E-Verify system, that this would require employers to use. But that doesn't apply all businesses in the state and this applies to any business that wants to do business within the city of Fremont.

COX: This was passed with 57, 5-7, percent of the vote. The reaction has been what since then, particularly coming from the Latino community?

Mr. KNAPP: Well, I haven't been to Fremont since this passed, but I was there last week and I was speaking to folks in a Hispanic grocery store and they were reluctant to talk to an Anglo reporter about their feelings about this. But the daughter of the proprietor said that many Hispanics in Fremont were already, even before the vote, laying low as a result of this being on the ballot.

COX: Fred Knapp is a reporter for NET News, public radio in Nebraska. Fred, thank you.

Mr. KNAPP: Thank you.

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