With frustrations running high over a lack of federal action on immigration, Fremont, Nebraska joined Arizona in restricting immigration. In a special election held yesterday, voters in Fremont passed an ordinance that will require businesses to verify employees’ immigration status and renters to apply for an occupancy license—which also requires a legal status check—before renting an apartment or home. The town of Fremont has just 25,000 people—93% of whom are white—and is surrounded by large meat packing plants. Although many are certain that legal challenges will keep the ordinance from taking effect, Fremont’s new ordinance could be a bellwether of similar legislation in other states if Congress continues to stall on an immigration overhaul.

Yesterday’s special election was a product of a two year long battle between city council and residents when, in 2008, a city council member suggested a measure to keep illegal immigrants out. After a highly contentious town hall debate, the city council voted down the ordinance with the rationale that the immigration measures fall under federal jurisdiction. Fremont residents, however, were not satisfied. They won a referendum after taking the matter to the Nebraska Supreme Court. It’s also important to note that Fremont’s new ordinance was written by restrictionist Kris Kobach, author of Arizona’s immigration law.

So what drove Fremont residents to pass this restrictive ordinance? According to the Associated Press, Fremont’s 4.9% unemployment rate matches Nebraska’s—both of which are well below the national average of 9.7%. David Drozd, a census expert at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, estimates Fremont’s Hispanic population at around 2,060—up from 1,085 in 2000. Krista Kjeldgaard, a former teacher and now a volunteer at Fremont One Future, compares the passage of the law with the recent uptick in anti-immigrant hysteria:

What’s driving all of this is just fear of the unknown. I think that people are not aware of the complexity of the entire immigration system. I think that’s been watered down to be a very simple issue of illegal and legal and it’s not that simple. It’s far more complex than that.

Aside from forthcoming legal challenges (similar legislation in Hazleton, PA and Farmers Branch, TX were passed, struck down by the courts and are still in costly litigation), Fremont City Councilman Scott Getzschman, who opposed the ordinance, said the new ordinance is going to cost Fremont:

In a community of 25,000, it’s going to be hard to take on the whole country, and it will be costly to do so.

Immigrants, both legal and undocumented, are vital to Nebraska’s economy. According to one study out of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, immigrant spending accounted for $1.6 billion in total production in Nebraska and generated roughly 12,000 jobs for the state in 2006—in addition to the $154 million immigrants contributed in property, income and sales tax. Another study by the Perryman Group estimates that if all unauthorized immigrants were removed from Nebraska, the state would lose $852.4 million in expenditures, $378.6 million in economic output, and approximately 5,400 jobs, even accounting for adequate market adjustment time.

With a low undocumented population, a lower unemployment rate than the rest of the country and an ordinance that will more than likely cost Fremont jobs and money, Fremont residents’ motivation for passing this ordinance is symbolic of a larger dissatisfaction with federal inaction. Numerous polls indicate that Americans not only support these restrictive immigration measures, but more importantly, support a larger federal immigration overhaul. It’s not that these towns are simply anti-immigrant—although the laws’ authors certainly are—it’s that voters want change and haven’t been presented with any other option. As more and more states introduce restrictive immigration measures, Congress needs to wake up, put partisan/election politics aside and confront a problem that voters nationwide clearly care deeply about.

Photo by brotherM.