FREMONT, Neb. — They won, but the fight isn't over.
A day after Fremont voters once again endorsed a measure to stop illegal immigrants from renting housing, attention shifted to whether the City Council will enforce the ordinance.
Jennifer Bixby, City Council president, said Wednesday she does not anticipate further delay in enforcement of the ordinance. The resolution passed in November says enforcement will begin 30 days after the results of the special election are certified as final.
“The vote certainly did send a message,” she said.
One of the lead supporters of the immigrant housing rule offered a strong message to council members: enforce, or else.
“If they continue down the same path of fighting the people, a recall is our only option,” said Paul Von Behren, an organizer of Our Votes Should Count.
Fremont voters first approved the controversial ordinance in 2010. On Tuesday, they resoundingly rejected an attempt to repeal housing requirements that thrust their community into the forefront of the national immigration policy debate.
Unofficial election results showed that the attempt failed, 60 percent to 40 percent.
Virginia Meyer, who helped organize Fremont YES!, a group that pushed for the amendment to strip the provisions, said voters were angry about having to return to the polls.
“I think the message that people already voted once on this issue was stronger than rational arguments about economic consequences to our town,” Meyer said. “They didn't want to vote again.''
Supporters of amending the ordinance said the city faces the threat of expensive court battles defending the law in possible legal challenges filed by civil rights organizations. They said taxpayers in Hazleton, Pa., and Farmers Branch, Texas, were exposed to legal costs in the millions of dollars as they became mired in court cases defending similar ordinances.
They also said the housing restrictions could risk millions in future federal grant funding for Fremont, a community of 26,000 about 30 miles northwest of Omaha.
Ron Tillery, executive director of the Fremont Area Chamber of Commerce, said the city's future is not clear.
“There's simply going to be a lot more uncertainty about what our community has to do now and the effects of the ordinance being implemented,'' he said.
The chamber favored amending the ordinance, saying that it would not achieve the results intended and that it presented an unwarranted risk to taxpayers, divided the community and diverted attention away from constructive enterprises.
Those on both sides of the divisive issue had expected a close vote.
Workers at the First Congregational Church said they saw a steady stream of voters all day at the Broad Street polling place.
Nathan Parr said he voted yes because he hoped that repealing the law would allow the city to move past the issue.
“I think it's really about race,” Parr said, referring to the city's Latino population. “We need to learn to accept other people. ... As a society I think we have to move past the whole thing.”
Others who cast votes against repealing the housing provisions of the ordinance said the issue shouldn't even have come to the polls again after it was approved with 57 percent support in 2010.
Angie Hancock of Fremont said she voted for the ordinance four years ago, too, and she is hopeful that the law will do what it was put in place to do.
“I'm all for the melting pot of America, but there are also laws in place to make yourself a citizen,” Hancock said.
“That's what needs to be done.''
The vote came against the backdrop of the fierce national debate over immigration and a Congress that appears gridlocked on the issue.
Although the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration overhaul last summer, many House Republicans have balked at proposals that include a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, predicted last week that it would be tough to get immigration legislation done this year, in part because he said his members don't trust President Barack Obama's administration to enforce the laws.
The issue has festered in Fremont since the City Council first considered an ordinance aimed at banishing illegal immigrants from the community in 2008.
Two years later, the town drew national attention when a citizen petition drive put the issue on the ballot.
The matter ended up back on the ballot after the City Council voted in November to once again send the ordinance to voters, leading to some exasperation from residents.
“I don't know why we're here voting on the same thing again,” said LaVonda Lehman, who declined to say how she voted. “Didn't we already do this once?”
The only provision of the ordinance enforced so far is one that requires businesses to use the federal E-Verify system to certify the legal status of new employees.
The ordinance's housing provisions require a new renter to obtain a $5 permit. The ordinance also requires rental licenses for landlords.
Proponents of repealing the housing provisions raised nearly $71,000 in cash or in-kind services. The money paid for yard signs and billboards, and print, radio and cable TV advertising.
Those who wanted to keep the ordinance relied on a grass-roots campaign largely fueled by small donations to produce yard signs and door hangers. They raised more than $8,000.
Voter Julie Rump said she was in the minority who opposed the ordinance in the first vote. She hoped that the ordinance would be amended and that a resolution would allow the city to move on.
“Then we can get back to loving our neighbor,” Rump said.
John Wiegert, a leader of Our Votes Should Count, said the City Council should heed the election results.
“The people have spoken,'' he said. “Hopefully, they'll get the message at City Hall, finally. They need to listen to the people of Fremont.''
Tillery said the community needs to heal and come together.
“With a 'yes' vote we would have had a clearer path forward,'' he said.
Meyer said Fremont's future begins today.
“The sun comes up tomorrow, and we'll still keep working on trying to show people from outside our community the best things about our town and make it welcoming and attractive to people,'' she said. “That's all we can do.''
World-Herald staff writers Joseph Morton and Kate Howard Perry contributed to this report.
The ACLU of Nebraska released this statement in response to the Tuesday election results in Fremont:
“We are saddened by the result of today's vote, and will stand with those residents of Fremont who will be harmed by the unfortunate decision to allow a discriminatory housing ordinance to be implemented. We commend local leaders and residents who worked hard and long to uphold the welcoming values that as Americans we hold dear. We will closely monitor implementation of the law and will bring to light and pursue any incidents of discrimination. ... The tide is turning in America, and by pursuing this backward policy Fremont stands apart from communities across the country that have come to realize how costly and self-defeating these types of exclusionary policies can be.'' — Amy Miller, legal director
The Nebraska Appleseed Center released this statement:
“As the conversation across the country has moved away from these kinds of approaches, we are saddened that Fremont will continue to live with the division and unnecessary costs created by this ordinance. At the same time, we recognize this vote as a chance to continue the conversation about how we all can best work together to build strong communities. Many local leaders, faith, business, and civic groups recognized the importance of a strong and inclusive community spirit in Fremont — a spirit that is essential to the future of our cities and our state. We will continue to work to remove barriers that prevent people from finding homes or starting businesses in Nebraska so that we can move forward as a place where all are included and can succeed together.” — Rebecca Gould, executive director
The four-year journey back to the polling booth Tuesday has Fremont residents weary and exasperated. Read more in our Sunday story.