Why a Small Nebraska City Is Obsessed With Illegal Immigration

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Residents of Fremont, Nebraska, want to keep undocumented immigrants out of their tiny Midwestern city, even if it means excluding them from private housing.

The city voted on Tuesday to keep a 2010 ordinance on the books that forces renters to swear that they’re in the U.S. legally and purchase a $5 permit each time they move.

Fremont isn’t exactly a hot destination for immigrants. The latest census numbers show 7 percent of the population is foreign born, well below the national average of 13 percent. It’s not clear how many of those foreign-born residents are undocumented.


So why is everyone so testy about illegal immigration? There are a couple of reasons.

1. Demographics

The city — home to just 26,000 people — might not have a large foreign-born population. But it has seen a bit of a demographic shift in recent decades.


From 2000 to 2010, the Hispanic population went from 4 percent of the city (roughly 1,000 people) to 12 percent (roughly 3,000 people). Newcomers have found jobs at local beef packing plants, according to the Associated Press.

That doesn’t excuse intolerance — plenty of cities experience demographic change gracefully — but it can help explain tensions.


2. The Kobach Factor

Fremont’s law targeting immigrant renters was drafted with the assistance of Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state.


Kobach (R) is one of the brightest minds fighting against illegal immigration. You may know him from immigration measures such as Arizona’s SB 1070 (the so-called “show me your papers” law) and Alabama’s HB 56 (what some considered “America’s harshest immigration law”).

Each of the laws share a common objective: to make conditions for immigrants so harsh that they want to leave the town, city or state where they’re residing. Kobach considers himself a backer of “self-deportation,” which, in his view, “is simply the idea that people may comply with the law by their own choice."


Kobach and fellow opponents of illegal immigration have a broader reason for supporting the Fremont law: if a case like that can make it to the Supreme Court, it could set a favorable precedent for other local immigration laws.

3. Lack of Information

Residents don’t know enough about the law and the value of immigration to their community, according to Becky Gould, the executive director of Nebraska Appleseed, a non-profit social-justice organization.


“We’re a state that is losing population, that has an aging population,” she said. “New people coming to our towns and communities is a part of what will help Nebraska thrive over the long term.”

Gould points to other Nebraska towns that have experienced a similar influx of Hispanic residents, but not reacted with restrictive laws.


Drive an hour and a half to the city of Crete, and you’ll find a different scenario. The public school there, she says, touts multilingual programs that aim to help Spanish-speaking families.

While a voting majority in Fremont may support the restriction on rentals, Gould says not all residents feel that way.


“I want to emphasize that I think the results of the elections don’t reflect all of the amazing folks that are trying to take the community of Fremont in a different direction,” she said.

Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.