The character of Fremont, Nebraska

The city of Fremont in the state of Nebraska made national news on Monday as local election results showed that voters approved a ballot measure to enact a city ordinance that prohibits the city’s landlords from renting space to illegal immigrants and also prohibits the city’s employers from hiring illegal immigrants.

In this piece, however, I don’t want to put forth my immigration proposals (though I have written one blog post with a few thoughts on immigration).  There’s a lot of spin being propagated in the national dialogue about the character of the town of Fremont.  Let’s take a peek inside Fremont to see what we can see, shall we?

I happen to know a former resident of Fremont very, very, very well.  Me.

I lived in Fremont for a brief period of time (roughly 5 months) back in 1989 (and the photos that follow were taken in 1989).  The numbers regarding the size of the Hispanic population (not differentiated between legal and illegal residents) that are being tossed about are 165 persons in the year 1990, 1085 in 2000. and 2,060 last year.  The total population of the town is roughly 25,000.  The percentage of the townspeople that can be described as white/Caucasian is perhaps about 90%.  Fremont is located quite near the outer suburbs of Omaha, the largest city of Nebraska with, in sheer numbers, the largest population of minorities among all the cities in the state.

Other Nebraska cities I’ve resided in are Lincoln (the state capital) and Norfolk (which, at the time, was also a meat packing town which experienced an influx of employees and new residents that diversified the town’s population).

Is the town of Fremont a backwater?  Is it an outpost of the Southern Bible Belt?  Are residents, by and large, uneducated?  Is it a conservative enclave within a conservative state?  Are residents, by and large, xenophobic and/or racist, or, residually so (by that, I mean whether residents’ attitudes were xenophobic and/or racist in past years and perhaps lingering down to the present day)?  Can the vote be interpreted to be a barometer of all of the above-mentioned characteristics rather than the result of a well-reasoned dialogue?  Is the ordinance a copycat of Arizona’s new law regarding inquiries into a crime suspect’s legal residency status?

I submit to you that the most likely answers to these questions are: no, no, no, no, no, no, and no.

Backwater.  Let’s address that first.  Backwater suggests rural, remote, disconnected, desolate, hayseed, behind the times, unrefined, inconsequential, lazy, poorly maintained, short-sighted, and/or unenlightened.

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On the edge of Fremont, at 1835 N. Saunders, is the depot for the Fremont Elkhorn Valley Railroad.  It does look backwater, doesn’t it?  It’s like a passenger train museum piece out of a past era.  When I resided in Fremont, they offered short train rides on the weekends, where passengers would dine along the way.  Interesting alternative to dining out at a fast-food joint, wouldn’t you say?  Perhaps that could be termed as innovative rather than behind the times.

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This is the Louis E. May Museum.  Backwards-looking to have a museum?  Firmly ensconced in the past?  Or an indicator of a town of refinement and enlightenment?

Maybe we should look at some real estate.

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Perhaps it’s quaint.  Perhaps it’s backwater.  But it does seem to be well-maintained, and not ramshackle.  At this point, let’s just say that the jury’s still out.

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Now, I found this interesting.  The town, perhaps, needed new school buildings because the student population had outgrown them, but the existing school buildings were fairly close to each other.  What if they were connected by elevated hallways to form one school out of the existing structures?  Wouldn’t that be cheaper than razing the buildings to make way for new construction?  In that first picture, you can see the skywalk beginning at the left side of the photo attached to one of the old schools. One of the skywalk tubes stretches across a couple of blocks, and you can get a glimpse of it above the parked cars in the second photo. I got closer up to where that skywalk crossed the street in the third photo, and snapped the shot looking through one of the skywalk’s supports. Two of the connected buildings are a lot closer together than the ones from the second and third photos. You can see a much shorter span in the fourth photo. The nickname for this network of skywalks was “Gerbil Run.”

Just as an aside, the man facing away from the camera in the fourth “Gerbil Run” photo is Matthew Hawken. He is one of the sons of Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer. Colonel Cammermeyer was a central figure in the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” national discourse that took place during the Clinton Administration. Don’t ask for what information might have been disclosed to me, because I’m not telling. The only thing I’m suggesting by even mentioning it is that I was paying closer attention than usual to those political events as they unfolded. His photo just happened to remind me, that’s all.

If the photos don’t reveal to you that Fremont is not a backwater, then I would further direct you toward a map of Nebraska.  There is just a short stretch of agricultural land that lies between Fremont and the outskirts of Omaha.  A number of Fremont residents commute to work in Omaha on a daily basis.  Fremont is connected to an urban area that is much more vibrant (low unemployment, scarce urban decay, good prospects for economic growth, etc.) than Ohio’s urban areas.  In decades past, Fremont might have been a small town a world apart from Omaha, but in recent years, it’s become an exurb of Omaha.  If someone were to scoff that Fremont is a backwater, I’d have to ask, what is Ohio becoming under Strickland and the corrupt good old boy leadership within the Democrat Party in Ohio’s Rust Belt cities?

Outpost of the Southern Bible Belt?  No.  Much of the townsfolk actually describe themselves as Lutheran, specifically, ELCA–Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, which, I believe, is headquartered in the fairly liberal Democrat-leaning state of Minnesota.  I’ve had conversations with a few of the Lutheran clergy, and, to be sure, they have much in common with other Protestant denominations when it comes to their views of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the New Testament, but, from a political standpoint on social issues, the ELCA preachers I spoke with have a markedly more liberal philosophy than the religious denominations that predominate in the Bible Belt of the South.  ELCA clergy seem much more sensitive to matters of political correctness than what’s demonstrated by Bible Belt preachers.

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Uneducated populace?  Hardly.  In addition to having a decent public school system, Fremont is, among other things, a college town, home to Midland Lutheran College (affiliated with the ELCA, naturally).  A college building is shown in the preceding photo.  Professors and students, as one can imagine, have a fairly progressive stance on many contemporary issues.  The population is better informed and educated than the majority of Ohio communities.

A conservative enclave in a conservative state?  Actually, the state is often in play for both major political parties.  Taken as a whole, Nebraska is rather moderate.  Democrats have had success in U.S. Senate races in Nebraska.  I would venture to say that Fremont, at least in public rhetoric, is more liberal than a great number of Nebraska communities, given its college student and faculty populations and the ELCA’s influence in the community.

Xenophobic/racist?  Despite the fairly white bread appearance of the local real estate, and despite the census figures, to level such a charge as that against the Fremont community seems the most farfetched of all the political spin that’s being generated by the ACLU and others on the far leftward fringe of the immigration debate.  The ELCA is involved in outreach through many parts of the globe.  Through their ministries abroad, they attract some students to Midland Lutheran College.  I met some remarkable students from Namibia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia during my residence in Fremont.  Not only were these students of color from foreign lands welcome at the college, they were welcome in families and homes.  These students boarded with host families that were enthusiastic in their approach toward welcoming, nurturing, sharing, mentoring, and day-to-day living with these students in their midst.  If any animosity existed between these students from abroad, they must have been set aside, for I saw no evidence of such.  In fact, I became acquainted with an Eritrean woman surnamed Berhe and an Ethiopian woman surnamed Selassie who were quite civil and sociable with each other despite strife in their homelands that led to the division of their countries (those are significant surnames, by the way–these were no casual observers or mere foot soldiers within their respective factions, for they were directly linked to the highest levels of leadership of their respective factions).  To be sure, they each had entirely opposing perspectives of the armed struggle, but their capacity for tolerance outweighed the tendency to feud.  The community’s warm embrace of these students made it all the easier for persons of such contrast to commingle with ease.  I assure you that the minority population of Fremont is relatively small not due to lack of a welcome mat and certainly not due to a disdain for diversity among the townsfolk.  Skin color and broken English have no bearing on living and participating in the Fremont community.  I witnessed no discrimination against minorities in 1989, so it is impossible for me to imagine how there could be lingering traces of xenophobia or racism at the present day when it didn’t exist two decades ago.  Perhaps the minority population of Fremont is small because few aspire to relocate to the small cities of Nebraska.  Think about it.

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By the way, the people milling about Fremont’s public square happened to be attending a festival known as John C. Fremont Days.  For a clue about who the most prominently featured participants of 1989’s Fremont Days festival were, take a gander at the following photo.

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The participation of Native (indigenous) Americans in Fremont’s festival doesn’t seem, to me, to be particularly racist.

The pundits of spin wish to impugn the character of Fremont residents based upon the election results.  The vote is not a reflection of any deficiencies of character.  The outcome was determined after much public discourse and well-reasoned debate.  At the end of the day, reason won out.  If a person has no legal right to live and work in the United States, why would they have a legal right to live and work in Fremont?  Is Fremont part of the United States?  Of course it is.  Fremont isn’t determining who has the legal right to live and work in the United States and who does not.  The federal government has already made that determination, by way of federal laws that stipulate how one who is not a citizen obtains the privilege of living and working in our country.  If a person does not abide by those stipulations set forth by our Congress, then such a person is here illegally.  Can it be said any plainer?  Fremont’s ordinance, therefore, dovetails with federal law, and is wholly compliant with federal law.  That such an ordinance should spark a storm of controversy is beyond my ability to comprehend.  I can only explain the dissent by way of leveling the accusation that the opposition has emotionally charged the issue to the point of clouding reason among its adherents.

Furthermore, this is no copycat of the new Arizona law.  The Arizona law allows law enforcement officials in the state to inquire about the legal status of those who’ve been stopped, detained, or arrested as a result of suspicion that infractions of the law were committed by such individuals.  Arizona has not given carte blanche to any law enforcement officials to accost and question individuals who are otherwise conducting themselves in a manner that arouses no suspicion of commission of legal infractions.  The Fremont ordinance has no bearing on police inquiries.  If the Fremont ordinance is a copycat of anything, it’s a copycat of federal law.

I find it atrocious that opponents of the ordinance have vowed to file lawsuit after lawsuit to bleed the city of money through the cost of litigation when they have no leg to stand on in any impartial court.  Having too many lawyers in legislative bodies at all levels of government has encouraged such frivolous litigation for the express purpose of economically benefiting the legal profession, above all, the trial lawyers.  In response, I would urge restraint against donating funds to organizations that pervert the legal system in such fashion.  I would also urge, when legislators are up for election, that voters should be careful in vetting candidates who are lawyers.  Any campaign endorsement from associations of trial lawyers should be taken as a warning.

Lastly, national public opinion polls suggest that the electorate is likely sympathetic to the actions that Fremont has taken.  The character of how many Americans will be impugned by the far leftward fringe before the end of this chapter is written?

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