The town that can’t live without migrants, but isn’t sure it wants to live with them

FREMONT, Neb. — Big-city mayors may be complaining about the economic impact of an influx of migrants, but the residents of a small city near Omaha can’t decide how they feel.

Fremont, Nebraska, population 27,000, has three massive meat-processing plants. As young locals leave in search of better jobs, Central American migrants have been taking their places in the slaughterhouses, especially after Costco opened a huge rotisserie chicken facility in 2019.

“We need these people,” said Mark Jensen, president of the city council. “We need this work done. This is what feeds the nation and the world.”

The meatpacking town of Fremont, Nebraska, has seen an influx of Hispanic migrants in recent years. Hispanic businesses have opened to serve them. NBC News But instead of a welcome mat, for more than a decade Fremont has had a controversial law on the books that tries to bar undocumented migrants from living within city limits. In 2010, residents voted 57% to 43% to require that all people renting property in Fremont must first sign a declaration that they are legally present in the U.S.

“The city’s citizens asked the city council to do something because it was pretty obvious that we had just become a haven for illegals,” said city council member Paul Von Behren.

Brenda Ray, who has lived in the Fremont area for 40 years, said she noted the change in the city’s population and voted for the ordinance back in 2010. She said she doesn’t “have a problem” with the Central American arrivals “if they are legal and they come in to speak American English.”

She wishes the rule, known as Ordinance 5165, “accomplished more,” but still supports it.

“It’s something that we have in our toolbox,” she said. “If we have a big problem we can fall back on it.”

The factories need workers, however, and the migrants have kept coming. By 2022 a town that was once nearly all white had become 16% Latino, according to census data, and the number has risen since. Many of the most recent arrivals are from Guatemala. The Guatemalan consulate in Omaha says there are at least 2,020 Guatemalans in Fremont and the true figure could be 45% higher.

Maria Hernandez and her husband, Vicente, pastors at one of the local Guatemalan churches, Dios es Amor #2, said their flock has grown from three congregants to 200 in seven years. They say many members work at the slaughterhouses, making it a frequent topic of prayer.

Fremont residents Vicente (left) and Maria Hernandez operate a Guatemalan church in town and say they’ve seen their congregation grow with new migrant arrivals. Courtesy of Maria Hernandez “I tell them that we have to give thanks because God has put in men who have companies,” Maria said. “If it weren’t for these companies we wouldn’t have a job.”

Vicente also works at one of the local slaughterhouses, cleaning the kill floor on the overnight shift. He thinks the city and the migrants are a good match.

“With Hispanic migrants, although it is hard, although it is heavy, they endure,” said Vicente. Between the church and the plant, he said, he gets three hours of sleep a night.

Jensen worked in the meatpacking industry for 40 years and says he’s seen how these jobs have become less attractive to native-born Americans.

“These are very physical jobs,” Jensen said. “And a lot of it’s hard work. And it’s not something that a lot of people can do.”

Some complain, however, that undocumented workers steal identities to get the jobs.

In 2021, a fraudulent document ring was uncovered in Fremont. Federal investigators found “hundreds of counterfeit federal and state identity cards,” according to court filings. Just last month, four slaughterhouse workers were charged with using other people’s Social Security numbers. Glenn Elwell, who investigated the cases as head of Nebraska’s Department of Motor Vehicles fraud unit, said he wasn’t surprised they were in Fremont. “A good majority of our cases are usually in and around cities and towns with meatpacking plants.”

‘A burden to the taxpayers’ Driving around Fremont, the Guatemalan presence is tangible, from local shops offering Latino foods to ads for remittance services. Many of the immigrant arrivals live in a mobile home neighborhood less than five minutes from the city’s plants.

“Work is a blessing,” said local store owner Gaspar Larios. “Now there are Guatemalans who have houses, their own homes in the United States.”

Larios and his wife run a small shop where they sell a type of traditional, colorful Guatemalan clothing called trajes — a piece of their home country that people still wear around town for special events.

The arrival of migrants has transformed the community and kept the slaughterhouses humming, but many residents note that it has also created a strain on city services. “Just the sheer pressure of bringing in numbers of people has resulted in a considerable burden to the taxpayers,” said Von Behren, of the city council. In the past four years, the school system has added 600 kids who don’t speak English as a first language. Of the most recent Guatemalan arrivals, 40% or more speak an Indigenous language called Kʼicheʼ, according to community organizer Antonio Lopez.

Councilman Paul Von Behren says he supports an ordinance requiring individuals to state whether they are legally in the U.S. to rent housing. NBC News But efforts have also been made to welcome newcomers.

A Fremont schoolteacher has started to learn K’iche’ to connect with students and their parents. The local hospital has hired a K’iche’ translator.

Jessica Kolterman, a director at Costco’s local chicken plant, told the local paper last year that her team holds language classes for workers. And she said her company rewards hard work: “If you come into this team and you want to work hard and grow, that opportunity is there in front of you.”

Costco did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, migrants who need to rent housing keep showing up at city hall to sign declarations that they are in the U.S. legally and pay $5 for an occupancy license. The city clerk’s office said it gets three to five of the declarations a day from migrants and other applicants.

The clerk’s office also said it was unaware of any cases that required further action, like finding that someone who signed a declaration was actually in the U.S. illegally, but referred NBC News to the police department for confirmation. The police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

One of the reasons there may be no cases is that the law doesn’t actually require applicants for occupancy licenses to provide any proof of legal presence in the U.S.

Aware that the measure could be a lightning rod for legal challenges when it was first passed in 2010, the city imposed a special short-term tax to raise a legal fund that now holds more than $1.3 million. For many years, it also paid a $10,000 annual retainer to lawyer Kris Kobach — the same anti-immigration activist who helped write the law and others like it in towns across the nation. (Kobach, who is now attorney general of Kansas, no longer has a contract with Fremont.)

As expected, the American Civil Liberties Union fought the law as soon as it was passed, but ultimately lost. The absence of language compelling renters to prove their right to be in the U.S. is part of the reason the ordinance survived legal challenge. It’s also why it is legally toothless.

Von Behren, who supports the rule, concedes it is unenforceable. Jensen, who opposes it, said that trying to enforce it against a particular migrant could invite more legal fights. He compared it to 19th-century laws that stay on the books long past their relevance.

“Basically,” he said, “it’s like the laws that are on the books for where you can hit your horse.”

Vicente Hernandez, however, said it still has an impact beyond the filing fee.

“When it’s something like this, it’s not like the people who [voted for it] left [Fremont],” he said. “Those people still live here.”

He and Maria said they still feel like they’ve found their new hometown.

“Now I live the American dream, as they call it,” said Maria.

Didi Martinez

Didi Martinez is an associate producer with the NBC News Investigative Unit. 

Julia Ainsley

Julia Ainsley is homeland security correspondent for NBC News and covers the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department for the NBC News Investigative Unit.

Laura Strickler

Laura Strickler is a senior investigative producer and reporter for NBC News. She is based in Washington.

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