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Nebraska town: Is illegal immigration crackdown worth the cost?

Facing costly legal battles with civil rights organizations, the city council in Fremont, Nebraska, may halt a law prohibiting businesses from hiring illegal immigrants.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / July 27, 2010

Pick-up trucks pass a mural in Fremont, Nebraska on July 21, the day the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund filed lawsuits against the town in response to a new illegal immigration law.

Nati Harnik/AP

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The city council of Fremont, Nebraska (pop. 25,000), is expected to decide Tuesday whether to delay enforcement of a new illegal immigration law because of legal challenges by civil rights groups. The ordinance, which would prohibit businesses from hiring and landlords from renting to illegal immigrants, was approved by voters June 21 and is scheduled to go into effect on Thursday.

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Immigration experts say the case could be a useful barometer of public sentiment and could provide indications of the mood of courts in the wake of scores of such laws being introduced in several states after Arizona’s tough immigration law passed in April. That law, pending a federal injunction, is also due to take effect Thursday.

Historically, such laws have not survived. A similar law was struck down in Hazelton, Pa., in 2006, and the US Supreme Court struck down a Nebraska state law in 1923 that restricted foreign-language education because it violated the 14th Amendment, points out Robert Langran, a political scientist at Villanova University. [Editor's note: The original gave the wrong year that the Supreme Court struck down the Nebraska law.]

In the Nebraska case, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) are suing, claiming the ordinance amounts to discrimination.

The law would subject landlords who knowingly rent to illegal immigrants could to $100 fines, and would require employers to check a federal online system to determine whether a person is permitted to work in the US.

In addition, it would require people to apply for a $5 City Hall permit before renting property. Those who said they were citizens would get a permit without having to provide evidence of their legal status. Those who said they were not citizens would still receive permits, but their legal status would be checked. If their status was found wanting, they would be forced to resolve it or leave the property.

Fremont appears to be leaning away from a court fight for cost reasons – officials have estimated that implementing the ordinance, including legal fees, would average $1 million per year.

Legal experts say that sets a bad precedent.

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