It’s been nearly two months since Fremont’s renter’s ordinance went into effect. It requires anyone moving into an apartment or rental home to first get a special move-in license. The law has gotten national attention because of its aim to keep out undocumented immigrants. Critics worry about discrimination, even if the law applies to everyone, including white landlords and renters.
Sydney Taylor works in the kitchen at Alotta Brownies Bakery, in the historic downtown district in Fremont, Nebraska. She is wearing an apron dusted with flour. She has long blonde hair, blue eyes, and a slight Midwestern accent.
She calls herself “very, very white.”
But that doesn’t matter in her family’s hunt for a new home in a child-friendly neighborhood. As some Fremont residents like Taylor are discovering, the new ordinance is an equal-opportunity inconvenience.
To move into their new apartment, Taylor and her husband will have to make a trip to the Police Department. They will each have to pay a $5 fee and submit forms affirming that they – and their two-year-old – are legal residents of the United States.
“I've been a citizen my entire life,” Taylor says. “I think I shouldn’t have to go down to the courthouse or the Police Department – wherever I have to go – and say, yes, I'm a citizen; and, yes, my child is; and, yes, my husband is.”
Taylor Baker and his roommate are at the Fremont Police Department. Their landlord sent them to get a renter’s license.
“I thought we had to come up to get a background check to make sure they weren't renting out the house to felons or something like that,” Baker says. “But to realize that it was just to check immigration and stuff, to see if we were citizens, that's kind of crazy, I thought.”
About 300 people have come to the Police Department for their occupancy licenses. The town's police chief had expected more. (Photo by Bobby Caina Calvan, The Heartland Project)
“By and large, most people have been very cooperative. No raised voices or no throwing keys or anything like that,” the chief says. “I had one gentleman who was upset because he had to put his children’s dates of birth on the application form.”
“The individuals that I've had contact with that were upset with it were white people,” Elliott adds.
Voters first passed the ordinance in June 2010. But the city council worried about how the law might hurt the town’s reputation and drive business away. So the council asked residents in February to repeal the ordinance. Instead, voters reaffirmed the law.
And last month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a discrimination case filed by the ACLU.
One in every eight of this city’s 26,000 residents is of Hispanic origin. Nebraska’s Latino population now numbers about 180,000 – that’s nearly double from the 2000 U.S Census. The state has one of the fastest-growing Latino populations in the country.
It’s the lure of jobs at meatpacking plants that is partly behind the rising Hispanic population. Most whites don’t like the messy and backbreaking work, so meatpacking plants actively recruit Latinos and the state’s growing number of refugees.
More immigrants mean more white Nebraskans are being confronted with having to live alongside people who don’t look or speak like them.
Chief Elliott won’t say what he thinks about the law.
“The Police Department does not support or oppose this ordinance,” Elliott says. “Our job is to enforce the law as the people have enacted it, and as the courts have upheld it.”
The police chief says his officers won’t be barging into any homes. The responsibility falls on landlords to evict anyone in the country illegally. Landlords could be fined a hundred dollars a day for violating the law, but it seems unlikely the city will enforce the ordinance aggressively.
Alex Young, right, gets help from a roommate's father as he moves into an apartment across the street from the Fremont Police Department. He says he's not bothered by having to obtain a tenant's license. (Photo by Bobby Caina Calvan, The Heartland Project)
He says getting a renter’s license isn’t much of a hassle.
“Having to go to the police station, and do all that? No, it's across the street,” Young says. “Got to show ’em some papers and give ‘em a couple bucks for a permit to live here.”
Channa Hess has been driving around town looking for a place to live. She stopped in to look at a one-bedroom on 12th Street. She arrived not knowing much about the renter’s law, and now she has second thoughts.
“Didn’t do a lot of research into it,” Hess says. “I wasn't for certain that I was going to live in Fremont so I wasn't looking into it. But now that I am, I probably should.”
The law doesn’t sit well with her boyfriend, Lance Evans, who is black, Latino and white.
“What types of people are usually here illegally? Hispanics right?” he asks. “So if you're trying to get rid of that type of population here, what would you do?”
Stephanie Bennington is the landlord looking for a tenant on 12th Street.
“Usually when we have a place for rent I can honestly say a lot of Latinos come through,” she says.
Bennington says that hasn’t been the case this time.
Her husband Travis Bennington is a local attorney, and he calls the law an embarrassment.
“I took a flight to Las Vegas, and I landed the weekend that it passed. And the cab driver says, ‘Where you from?’ And I said, ‘I'm from Nebraska,’” he recalls.
“And he says, ‘Oh my God, did you hear about the little town in Nebraska that passed that racist ordinance?’ And he held up a newspaper and there it was: Fremont, Nebraska.
“Instead of saying I'm from that racist little town, I said I’m from Omaha.”
Back at the bakery, Sydney Taylor is on her cell phone. She’s talking with a potential landlord.
Taylor and her husband thought about moving 40 miles to Omaha, partly because of the renter’s law.
But the Taylors aren’t quite ready to give up on Fremont. They say the town’s tree-lined streets and quiet neighborhoods have the right feel for raising a family.
“We ended up deciding to stay because of Fremont’s great child programs” Taylor says. “I don't want my child to grow up in a bigger city and I'd rather have him grow up in a small town. Fremont does provide that.”
But Taylor wonders: At what point will Fremont become too inhospitable for even someone like her?
This report is made possible by The Heartland Project, an initiative to broaden news coverage of Nebraska's communities of color, as well as gay, lesbian and transgender issues. The project is funded by the Ford Foundation in collaboration with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications, the Asian American Journalists Association and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.