Fremont's Housing Ordinance Is In Effect, But Difficult to Enforce

June 6, 2014, 6:30 a.m. ·

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Two months ago Fremont started enforcing an ordinance that makes it illegal to rent to undocumented immigrants. Many of the city’s Latino residents are concerned the ordinance will encourage housing discrimination based on a renter’s race or national origin. But right now, it’s not clear if the ordinance is enforceable.

Read the full text of Fremont's Ordinance 5165 here.

In Fremont, all renters moving into a new house or apartment now have to get an “occupancy license” from the city. It costs $5. You fill out your name, birth date, the names and birth dates of any minors living with you, and your rental information, and then you have to declare whether or not you are a U.S. citizen.

Fremont’s Police Department is in charge of enforcing the ordinance and handling the paperwork.

“There’s three areas you can sign," said Jeff Elliott, Fremont's chief of police. "It says I’m a U.S. citizen, I’m not a U.S. citizen, but I have some sort of documentation. I’m not a U.S. citizen, I don’t have any documentation. No matter which one of those you sign, you’re gonna get a license.”

If the city processes an application and finds a person is in the country unlawfully, then they revoke the license. But that’s easier said than done.

If you sign you are a U.S. citizen, that’s the end of the process. If you’re not a citizen but provide documentation, like the number on a work visa or green card, then the police run that number through the SAVE Program, or the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements Program. And if you sign you’re not a citizen and have no documentation?

“We’re supposed to run it through the SAVE system too, but that doesn’t work because you gotta have a number to run it through the SAVE system," Elliott said. "If they’ve got the number, we check ‘em. If they don’t, we’re not checking ‘em because we don’t have a system in place to do that.”

And there’s one other problem. Currently, the city of Fremont does not have the contract with the federal government, called a Memo of Understanding or MOU, to use SAVE at all.

“We’re still waiting on information on the SAVE system. Because the MOU for the SAVE system is not in place. Right now, we’re not doing it,” Elliott said.

Read Fremont's application for occupancy licenses in English here.

Read Fremont's application for occupancy licenses in Spanish here.

So, just to recap: everyone receives an occupancy license when they submit an application. If you say you’re a U.S. citizen, nothing happens. Right now, if you say you’re not a U.S. citizen, regardless of whether or not you have documentation, nothing happens, because the city currently has no way to check if you are legally in the country. When the city is able to use SAVE, Fremont still won’t be able to verify any non-citizen’s immigration status who doesn’t have documentation. That’s just not how SAVE works.

Amy Miller knows this can be confusing for Fremont residents. She’s the legal director for ACLU Nebraska, and has been running a series of Know Your Rights meetings about the ordinance with a group called Un Fremont Con Dignidad, or A Fremont with Dignity.

About 30 people showed up for one recent meeting at St. Patrick’s Church near downtown Fremont. Miller does not speak Spanish so Michelle Knapp, one of Un Fremont’s co-founders, translated. Un Fremont Con Dignidad originally formed to oppose the ordinance in 2010. Since the ordinance went into effect two months ago, the group has shifted to being an informational resource for residents.

When details of the ordinance were murkier, these meetings were tense.

“We had whole families who had brought small children who were intent on every word, clearly, very very fearful about what was going to happen to them,” Miller said.

Miller has seen the mood change at these meetings since she’s been able to clarify exactly how the ordinance works. “People are curious and still fearful but that additional information really has taken the pressure off right now,” she said.

How do the Fremont police process applications?

Renters submit or designate an agent to submit their application for an occupancy license to the Fremont Police Department. Everyone receives a license when they submit their application. The police will process applications one of three ways:

  • If a person states that they are a U.S. citizen, the police file the application.
  • If a person states they are not a U.S. citizen and have documentation they are in the country lawfully, they will write the number on their documentation. The police will send that number to the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) Program. But, currently, the city of Fremont does not have a Memo of Understanding with the federal government to use SAVE and can't check anyone's immigration status.
  • If a person states they are not a U.S. citizen and have no documentation, the police are supposed to process the application using SAVE. But SAVE is unable to verify anyone's status without the number from government issued ID, like a resident alien card, visa number, "A" number, I-94 registration number, or employment authorization number.
  • How does the license revoking process work?

    If the city of Fremont could use SAVE, SAVE would determine if the applicant has legal residency. If the applicant does not, the police issue a deficiency notice giving the applicant 60 days to provide documentation if that is incorrect. If 60 days pass without response, the police will notify the applicant that their license will become invalid in 45 days.

Ordinances like Fremont’s aim to encourage undocumented immigrants to leave town by making it difficult for them to live and work there. It’s not clear if Fremont’s ordinance is doing that, especially since the city currently can’t verify anyone’s immigrations status. But whether or not they can, the ordinance has already made a lot of the city’s Latino residents feel unwelcome.

Most of the audience at the Un Fremont meeting was Latino. The Latino community in particular has been concerned the ordinance will lead to discrimination based on race and national origin, regardless of citizenship. That was the basis of the ACLU’s lawsuit to stop the ordinance in 2010. Miller’s Latino clients felt like they were already being stereotyped.

“Some of our clients were U.S. citizens, born here. Some were naturalized U.S. citizens, but they tell me, 'I don’t know how I’m going to be treated.' There’s this perception that we’re all from Mexico, that we’re all undocumented,” Miller said.

Mayora Peralta has lived in Fremont for the past 13 years. Her oldest daughter just moved out of Fremont.

“Ella dice que no le gusta vivir en una ciudad donde no los quieren,” Peralta said. ([My daughter] said she didn’t like living in a city where we’re not wanted.)

Peralta’s daughter wants Peralta and the rest of the family to move too, but Peralta doesn’t want to. She likes living in a small town.

“Todo en la vida estado aqui. Mis hijos son criados aqui. Ellos nacieron aqui, Y yo pienso que yo me voy a otro lugar, mis hijo los chiquitos no van hacer felices en otro lugar," Peralta said. (My whole life is here. My kids grew up here, they were born here. I think my younger children wouldn’t be happy living somewhere else.)

Fremont is currently working with the federal government to get a contract to use the SAVE program, but there’s no timeline for when that will happen. The ACLU has also set up a hotline for any residents to report discrimination as a result of the ordinance.