Beyond the Border, Nebraska Tackles Immigration

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FREMONT, Neb. - The illegal immigration debate is extending beyond the border, as states and cities around the country begin pressing the issue -- even in America's heartland.

Like Arizona, one Nebraska town is now facing a lawsuit for its tough stance against illegal immigration.

Fremont, Neb., is a patriotic town near Omaha, where a large American flag graces the front of a downtown building. A marquee boldly reads, "God bless America. Thank you veterans." Homes proudly display the red, white, and blue.

And although the city is more than 1,000 miles from the Mexico border, it's also a key front in the battle over illegal immigration.

"The city of Fremont says we do not want illegal aliens in our town," said longtime Fremont resident John Wiegert.

Noticing Changes

Fremont is one of several cities in Nebraska that have seen drastic demographic changes in recent years. Residents believe one of the main reasons is an influx of Hispanic workers at meat-packing plants.

Wiegert and a majority of Fremont voters believe many of the workers and other immigrants in town are in the country illegally. He says the economic burden and crime associated with illegal immigration have residents saying "no more."

"We've had a lot of assaults, domestic abuse, drugs, robberies, things like that," Wiegert told CBN News. "The federal government is not doing a thing. And that's why we took a stand and we just said, 'Hey, we're going to watch out for ourselves.'"

That stand involved a drive to get an ordinance against illegal immigration on the ballot. The city council had previously voted against a strict ban.

"We know that you guys have been against this ordinance from day one," one resident said at a city council meeting.

"You can disrespect me all you want," responded Robert Hartwig, the city administrator of Fremont. "You can disagree with me all you want, but I have a very, very serious problem with you criticizing what this council does."

Strict Rules, Strong Support

The ordinance bans "harboring or hiring of illegal aliens" and also renting to illegal immigrants. An "occupancy license for rental of residential property" is also required.

Wiegert and supporters forced a vote on the issue by gathering more than 4,000 signatures in six months.

Even then, the Fremont City Council tried to block the ordinance by taking the ban to district court and then to the Nebraska Supreme Court. In both cases, the city council lost.

"Finally, they let it go to the vote of the people after all of this," Wiegert said.

Fremont has a population of about 25,000. Close to 60 percent voted for the tough ordinance.

Opposition Heads to Court

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska and a Mexican American legal group sued Fremont, arguing the ordinance is unconstitutional and the city overstepped its boundaries.

"The way that Fremont is choosing only fosters discrimination," Laurel Marsh of the Nebraska ACLU told CBN News. "It fosters racial profiling."

The group planned a benefit concert in Omaha to support the lawsuit.

"I grew up in Fremont," said Daniel Burns, a band member who performed at the concert and is against the Fremont immigration law. "It's a predominately white town. And that tends to breed some misunderstanding, and misunderstanding tends to lead to anger."

"In Fremont today, 'Hispanic' equals 'illegal' and that's not good," a concert organizer told those in attendance.

However, supporters of the Fremont immigration ordinance say that's not true.

"I don't care what color you are, what origin you are, when you want to rent, or when you want to be hired," Wiegert said. "They're going to have to check everybody."

Members of the Nebraskans Advisory Group say it's not about equality, but a matter of obeying the law and upholding the Constitution. They call themselves pro-immigrant, but anti-illegal.

"It's not a racist issue," emphasized Susan Smith, a member of the group. "It has nothing to do with that. It has nothing to do with legal immigration."

"I'm against illegal immigration," Fremont immigration law supporter Cheryl Sweet said. "We have foreign nationals crowding across our borders. They're undercutting job pay. They're committing crimes. They're having 'anchor babies,' which allows them to stay. They're receiving food stamps, welfare."

"We do need to help others," Smith added. "We're a very generous people, but you can't expect the citizens to obey the laws and foot the bill and just turn a blind eye to the illegal aliens. It's just wrong."

Taking the Fight Statewide

Currently, the Fremont immigration ordinance is on hold while the city deals with the lawsuit.

Plans are in the works for the entire state of Nebraska to take up immigration reform.

Nebraska state Sen. Charlie Janssen, who lives in Fremont, has talked about efforts to pass a statewide illegal immigration law similar to Arizona's when the state legislature convenes in January.

Originally aired September 16, 2010.

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Mark Martin is a reporter and anchor at CBN News, covering various issues from military matters to alternative fuels. Mark has reported internationally in the Middle East and traveled to Bahrain to cover stories on the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkMartinCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/MarkMartinCBN.