On April 10, 2014, renters in Fremont, Nebraska started facing new rules to rent an apartment or house in the city. Renters are required to pay $5 and apply for an occupancy license at the local police station before renting an apartment or house. Landlords are required to obtain a copy of the occupancy license and keep it on file.
If you are wondering why people must now obtain a license to have a place to live, you need to look no further than the form potential renters must fill out.
In addition to their name and address of the unit they are renting, along with a few other specific details, renters are required to indicate their country of birth and if they are a citizen of the United States. If they are not a U.S. citizen or national, they must provide the federal I.D. number that indicates they are legally allowed to reside in the United States. This information will then be verified with the federal government via E-Verify, the verification system used by employers to determine employment eligibility.
In other words, the new rental rules are designed to prevent undocumented immigrants from renting in the city.
Located 35 miles west of Omaha, Fremont’s place in the history of the United States includes having the first transcontinental telegraph line pass through it, as well as the first railroad and highway. By 2010, the population of a little more than 26,000 residents included a large immigrant community. It is estimated that 7 percent of the population is foreign born. The growth of the largely Latino immigrant community over the past 20 years is attributed to the jobs at the Fremont Beef and Hormel meatpacking facilities.
As part of the national wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, Fremont voters passed the new rental ordinance in July 2010. Court challenges by immigrant groups and the ACLU, as well as a desire by the local city council to repeal the law, delayed implementation. The Eighth Circuit Appeals court reversed a lower court’s ruling that said the citizenship requirements of the law were unconstitutional. While the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) petitioned the Supreme Court to challenge the ruling, voters were asked to reverse the ordinance in a special election this year.
The voters, once again, let the law stand.
Fremont is just the latest of several locales that have instituted anti-immigrant policies across the nation. Several courts across the ideological spectrum have ruled laws that ban renting to undocumented immigrants as unconstitutional. Appeals courts have rejected ordinances in Texas, Alabama and Pennsylvania in recent years. These ordinances contained the same or similar provisions as the Fremont law. In those cases, the courts ruled that the ordinances were designed to remove immigrants – specifically Latinos – from the city. This was deemed as an act of immigrant removal, which falls under the jurisdiction of the federal government.
While a lower court ruled similarly in the Fremont case, the Eighth Circuit Appeals Court disagreed, saying that there was nothing in the law that targeted Latinos. They also ruled that the plaintiffs in the case could not prove they were specifically harmed by the law, meaning they had no standing to bring the suit. The reversal was in stark contrast with appeals courts’ rulings across the country.
This week, the Supreme Court rejected MALDEF’s and ACLU’s challenge – meaning the Eighth Circuit Court’s ruling stands and Fremont can now make citizenship a requirement for renting in the city.
If it is determined by the federal government the occupant is not in the country legally, the Fremont police department will send a deficiency notice, which will begin a series of steps for the renter to challenge and provide additional verification before revocation of the occupancy license would begin. Of course, by then it would be too late because once the federal government realizes someone is undocumented, this would trigger immigration officials, leading to a series of other events other than being evicted. In the end, undocumented immigrants are now forced to lie on their applications or leave the city.
In the lone dissent in the Eighth Circuit’s ruling, Judge Myron Bright pointed out this exact scenario. “The ordinance will impose a distinct burden on undocumented persons by preventing them from renting housing in Fremont,” Bright wrote. “This denial of rental housing is paramount to removal from the city. And, as the Supreme Court has made clear, removal is entrusted exclusively to the federal government.”
Except by refusing to hear the challenge, the Supreme Court may have just changed their minds and set in motion a ripple effect for other cities around the country to follow Fremont’s lead.