LINCOLN, Neb. — The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to review a Nebraska city’s ordinance that bans renting homes to immigrants living in the country illegally could open the door to similar laws elsewhere, supporters said Monday, though they’re likely to encounter fresh legal challenges.
Kris Kobach, the lawyer who defended the ordinance, said Monday’s decision gives a “bright green light” for other cities within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit that want to adopt such laws. The circuit includes Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and the Dakotas.
Still, any such move would almost certainly face a costly legal fight from advocacy groups working to stop the ordinances. Earlier this year, the justices declined attempts by two other towns — in Pennsylvania and Texas — to revive similar laws that had been struck down by lower courts. But unlike the Pennsylvania and Texas ordinances, the Fremont rules do not impose penalties on immigrants.
The Fremont ordinance requires renters to get a $5 permit and swear that they have legal permission to live in the United States. First approved in 2010, the ordinance has survived several legal challenges and an attempt to repeal it at the ballot box in February.
The high court on Monday let stand a ruling by the appeals court that found that the ordinance does not discriminate against Latinos or interfere with federal immigration laws.
“This is a final and complete victory for Fremont,” said Kobach, who serves as Kansas’s secretary of state. “It is beyond question that every city in the 8th Circuit has the ability to adopt the Fremont ordinance, word for word.”
But Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, said Fremont could still face challenges to its ordinance. The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska has said it will keep close tabs on the city and will consider a new lawsuit if tenants report discrimination. The federal appeals panel that upheld the ordinance in June left an opening for future lawsuits if people can show the rules have resulted in discrimination.
“These laws are ugly, unproductive, and inconsistent with our national values,” Saenz said. “There has to be a very serious opposition to these kinds of laws, because they’re anti-business and anti-human-rights.”
The number of Hispanics in Freemont jumped from 165 in 1990 to 1,085 in 2000 and 3,149 in 2010, mostly because of jobs at the nearby Hormel and Fremont Beef plants. But supporters of the measure insist it does not target Hispanics.
Fremont Police Chief Jeff Elliott said 140 people have applied for licenses since the city began enforcing the ordinance on April 10. “It’s lower than what we had expected at this point,” Elliott said.
Fremont resident Virginia Meyer, who helped organize the unsuccessful repeal effort, said the ordinance has proved divisive and painted the city in a negative light. When she heard the news Monday, Meyer said she was torn between disappointment that the ordinance would stand and relief that the bitter legal fight might soon end and allow the town to heal.
“I’ve seen firsthand what this ordinance has done to Fremont,” she said. “It seems to have distracted our town from working on other things that are really important. I wouldn’t want to see this happening in other communities.”
The Supreme Court has held since 2012 that immigration issues are largely a matter for federal agencies, not local governments, to regulate.
Creighton University professor David Weber, an immigration-law expert who has followed the Fremont case, said it’s possible the court passed on it because it didn’t feel the issue was ripe for review. But he said the court might decide to address the issue later if copycats start to emerge.