Two federal lawsuits target Nebraska town's ordinance on illegal immigrants
Two federal lawsuits were filed Wednesday against the small town of Fremont, Neb., seeking to overturn a controversial ordinance banning illegal immigrants from renting homes or taking jobs.
Fremont, a rural town with a population of about 25,000, found itself at the front line of the immigration debate when it passed the law after a special election last month.
It was due to go into effect July 29, but a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union seeks an immediate injunction while the legal battle is taking place. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund also filed suit against the city.
About 45 percent of the town's eligible voters turned out for the special election, approving the ordinance 57 percent to 43 percent. Supporters of the law said it was needed because illegal immigrants were taking away jobs from legal workers and because the federal government has refused to take sufficient action against illegal immigration.
The ACLU's lawsuit claims the law is unconstitutional because immigration policy is the responsibility of the federal government. It also states that the measure risks committing racial profiling and fanning discrimination.
"There's a very palpable fear that is being expressed by our clients on the ground already, asking if they should just move out of Fremont," said Amy Miller, legal director of ACLU Nebraska. "Nebraska doesn't need a law on its books that, like Arizona's, is completely out of step with American values of fairness and equality."
Miller was referring to an Arizona law that gives police the power to question anyone whom they have a "reasonable suspicion" is an illegal immigrant. The U.S. Justice Department has sued to overturn the law.
Fremont's immigrant population has grown over the past 20 years as foreign workers have been attracted by the meatpacking industry. According to census records for 2008, about 4.4 percent of its population was foreign-born.
Dean Skokan, Fremont's city attorney, said he could not comment on the suits because he had not yet seen them. He added that he expected to issue a statement Thursday.
City officials are bracing for the costs of fighting the lawsuits. Other towns whose immigration measures were struck down in the courts, such as Hazleton, Pa., and Farmers Branch, Tex., have spent millions in legal fees.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates tougher laws on illegal immigration, said the lawsuits were an attempt to "intimidate local governments from taking action."
This ordinance "wasn't just an act of the city council. This was the voters of Fremont saying they wanted to do this," he said.