Immigration Divides Nebraska Farm Town

FREMONT, Neb. — A vote Monday brings to a head a two-year battle over immigration that has divided residents here.

The split over a proposed city ordinance to crack down on illegal immigration has spilled over into churches, coffee shops and grocery stores in this agricultural center 35 miles northwest of Omaha—a long way from the U.S.-Mexico border.

Public officials in the once-homogeneous city of 25,000 have been asked not to speak on the topic, casting an odd veil of silence over the city. Mayor Donald "Skip" Edwards declined to be interviewed, saying only that "I'm not going to put myself in a difficult spot."

"The mentality and the atmosphere has changed" here, said Michelle Knapp, a resident and vocal opponent of the ordinance, sitting at a quaint Main Street coffee shop. "It's fear."

Fremont's special election follows on the heels of a strict law recently signed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer making it a state crime to be in the country illegally. 

While immigration has long been the purview of the federal government, states and cities like Fremont are increasingly taking matters into their own hands in the absence of a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration policy.

"If you're having flooding, you're not going to wait for the federal government to sandbag," said Jerry Hart, a resident and lead proponent of the Fremont ordinance.

Since its founding in 1856, Fremont has been almost all white, with many residents of Swedish and German descent. Over the years, big meatpacking companies like Hormel Foods moved to town as the industry was consolidating and being pushed from urban centers to the rural Midwest. In the 1990s, the area's Hispanic population began to grow.

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