- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 21, 2010

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Two civil rights groups filed separate federal lawsuits Wednesday against a small Nebraska city to stop its new ordinance that bans people from hiring or renting homes to illegal immigrants.

The lawsuits were filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund, also known as MALDEF. Both lawsuits said the ordinance amounted to discrimination.

“This law encourages discrimination and racial profiling against Latinos and others who appear to be foreign-born, including U.S. citizens,” said Amy Miller, legal director of ACLU Nebraska. “We’re going to do all we can to make sure this extreme law, which would lead to individuals losing housing and jobs because of their appearance and language ability, never goes into effect.”

Fremont City Attorney Dean Skokan said Wednesday he had not seen the lawsuits and could not comment on them. Officials anticipated challenges to the ban.

“We expect a minimum of about three lawsuits,” Mr. Skokan said.

The ban, which was approved by voters in June, is set to go into effect July 29. It put Fremont on the list with Arizona and a few other cities in the national debate over immigration regulations. Arizona’s sweeping law also takes effect July 29 and requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they think is in the country illegally.

“Nebraska doesn’t need a law on its books that, like Arizona’s, is completely out of step with American values of fairness and equality,” Ms. Miller said.

Both lawsuits charge that Fremont’s law is at odds with the constitutional mandate imposing a uniform federal immigration enforcement system. The suits also contend the ordinance violates the federal Fair Housing Act and the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution, among other things.

Fremont’s ban has divided the community of about 25,000 about 35 miles northwest of Omaha. The city’s seen its Hispanic population surge in the past two decades, largely because of the jobs available at the nearby Fremont Beef and Hormel plants.

Supporters argued the measure was necessary to make up for what they see as lax federal law enforcement. Opponents said it could fuel discrimination.

The measure will require potential renters to apply for a license to rent. The application process will force Fremont officials to check whether the renters are in the country legally. If they are found to be illegal, they will not be issued a rent license. The ordinance also requires businesses to use the federal E-Verify database to ensure employees are allowed to work.

MALDEF has fought similar ordinances, including a ban on renting to illegal immigrants in Farmers Branch, Texas. A federal judge in March found that the Farmers Branch ordinance was unconstitutional.

Fremont officials have been watching that Texas town and others across the country that have passed similar bans. Fremont officials cited Farmers Branch in a list of estimated legal costs that other cities have racked up in defending their bans. Fremont officials have estimated that its costs of implementing the ordinance — including the legal fees, employee overtime and improved computer software — will average $1 million a year.