Fremont at Center of Immigration Turmoil

Art Hovey, Lincoln Journal Star, Sept. 26, 2009

“The melting pot” analogy for immigration has taken on new meaning in this city of 25,000.

It could be said that the heat has been turned up here and that the bubbling contents of the pot are coming apart rather than coming together.

Behind is a summer unity picnic in which Kristin Ostrom, Gabriela “Gabby” Ayala and other members of a group called Nebraska Is Home tried to ease the tension between the white population and Hispanics and other relatively new immigrant faces.

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Ostrom, 47 and a 12-year resident of Fremont, couldn’t believe her ears last year as she headed home from a trip to Minnesota. On the radio was live coverage of a marathon public hearing that would eventually lead to the city council’s defeat of a crackdown ordinance.

“I was shocked,” she said during a Wednesday interview at a local coffee shop, “shocked that it seemed true that a small community where people know each other would be so judgmental of some new people coming in.”

Ayala, 26, Mexican immigrant and an 11-year resident of Fremont, said her Hispanic friends feel two ways.

“There are the ones that are confident it’s not going to happen, and there are the ones that are worried about what might happen,” Ayala said.

“There are a few families that have moved away already,” she added, “because they’re afraid to go out, afraid to go to the store, because they don’t know whether they’ll be insulted by somebody, especially with all the anger going on.”

Fremont, home to such familiar Nebraska landmarks as Midland College and the Fremont Dinner Train, became a center of attention for less warm and fuzzy reasons last year.

That’s when several members of the city council got behind a proposed ordinance that would, among other things, prevent local landlords from renting to people who can’t prove legal status in the U.S.

It eventually failed when Mayor Ed “Skip” Edwards broke a 4-4 tie by voting against the ordinance.

That led to a successful petition drive, which led to a Dodge County District Court case in which Judge John Samson directed the city to go ahead with an election, which led to an appeal that is now before the Nebraska Court of Appeals.

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Ayala and Ostrom aren’t convinced those behind the petition drive represent the majority.

“I’m pretty sure it’s not a big group,” Ayala said, “but it is a loud group.”

Ostrom thinks the ordinance promoters’ sense of mission is a reaction to a recent change in Fremont’s racial makeup.

“I think it’s people being nervous about change,” she said, “about new people coming to the community and how that affects jobs and the community.”

“A number of people have talked about how they’re offended that they hear people speaking Spanish at Wal-mart,” she said.

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