Who Gets to Live in Fremont, Nebraska?
A new Costco plant could save the town—by bringing hundreds of immigrants to the only place in America that passed a law to keep them out.
By Henry Grabar, Slate Magazine, Cover Story
Dec. 06, 2017
FREMONT, Nebraska—The past few years in this Nebraska town of 26,000 have been unusually fraught. “My neighbor is on the City Council. His wife does not wave to me,” explained John Wiegert, as he made his way to a political meeting at the public library this summer. “I could be on fire in the front yard, and she wouldn’t put me out with a garden hose.” Doug Wittmann, who had organized the get-together, wore a blue polo branded with his organization, a Tea Party–influenced group called Win It Back. “We’re divided in this country; we’re divided in this community,” Wittmann told me. “And a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Twenty minutes later, the City Council president, Scott Schaller, wearily addressed the gathering: “It seems like we’ve disagreed on more issues lately, over the past year, than we’ve ever disagreed on.”
A few dozen Fremont residents were crowded into a library meeting room to discuss the Costco chicken plant, a $300 million facility that broke ground this summer and will, starting in 2019, slaughter and ship nearly 400,000 birds a day, all raised by local farmers on strict contracts. The meeting was about eminent domain, but the plant had come to stand for much more than that. Its arrival had split this quadrant of the state along lines that defy traditional two-party politics. In favor is the pro-growth business and political elite, immigration-friendly liberals, and a considerably quieter contingent of Latino residents. Opposed is a curious coalition of aging nativists, good-government advocates, environmentalists, and advocates for workers’ rights.
When complete, the Fremont plant will enable Costco to control poultry production all the way from fertilization to the spits upon which rotisserie chickens will glisten in the chain’s hundreds of locations in the Western United States. Costco says the economic impact of the Fremont plant, hatchery, and feed mill will be $1.2 billion each year, adding more than 1 percent to Nebraska’s gross domestic product. It will transform Fremont, where as many as 1,000 new workers could buy their groceries and educate their children, and the surrounding region, where hundreds of chicken barns will sprout in the fields like mushrooms after the rain.
The battle over the Costco plant has served as a coda for a long war over the way the meat business—Fremont’s Hormel hog plant is the nation’s largest producer of Spam—has changed the town’s identity through the arrival of Latino workers and their families, who now number about 4,000 here. Fremont is the only city in the country that has successfully made it illegal to rent a house to an unauthorized immigrant. The ordinance failed in the City Council in 2008, passed in a referendum in 2010, was overturned by a district court judge in 2012, and was upheld by a circuit court in 2013. Fremont reaffirmed the ordinance in a second referendum in 2014, with 60 percent of voters in favor. Years of raucous debate split families and neighbors, inspired acts of vandalism, brought media attention from far afield, and drove hundreds of Latino residents to leave. Since the second referendum, the city has held an uneasy peace over the ordinance, which goes largely unenforced. Many Latinos who left have returned. But the City Council still sets aside budget money for the possibility they will wind up back in court. A similar, ultimately overturned ordinance cost a Dallas suburb $6 million in legal fees.
The themes that characterized that saga in Fremont resonate across dozens of Midwestern towns—Austin, Minnesota; Storm Lake, Iowa; Garden City, Kansas—where just about the only job and population growth in the past two decades has come from the meatpacking industry and the immigrant workers it attracts. Meat has remained invulnerable to the outsourcing that devastated Rust Belt manufacturing towns. In fact, deregulation and factory farming have brought on a meat boom, bringing good news to towns like these: more young people, more downtown businesses, and related jobs in law, finance, and health care. This is especially visible in places like Schuyler, Nebraska, a small city west of Fremont that’s now more than 70 percent Hispanic. “People had to make a decision: Embrace change or get rid of it,” said Susan Jacobus, a Fremont city councilor who moved recently from Schuyler. “And if you get rid of it, it’s going to cost you your town.”
The Costco plant will bring tax dollars and local spending from hundreds of new arrivals. But it will also reshape the environment of eastern Nebraska, with fertilizer from 500 chicken barns dumping nitrates and phosphates into the water supply of cities downstream. And the work itself, if history is any guide, will be low-paying, dangerous, and difficult. There’s a reason native-born whites don’t work in meat plants anymore.
Supporters of the housing ordinance claimed to defend law and order—they had no problem with legal immigrants, they often said—but they also complained about hearing Spanish spoken in the supermarket and worried about the burden that even legal immigrants placed on Fremont’s schools and social services. They didn’t see why Fremont had to change. If the ordinance was their defiant rebuke to the plants, the packers, and the politicians, the approval of the Costco plant was the opposite: proof that their world was indeed changing beyond their control.
Three years after affirming what may be the most anti-immigrant housing law in the country, Fremont is welcoming a plant that is all but certain to bring hundreds more immigrant and refugee families to town. The city’s political class, which by and large opposed the ordinance, considers this a no-brainer. Unlike many rural communities, Fremont’s population has not declined, in part because it’s now 15 percent Latino. But it is older than the state and the country: Nearly 20 percent of the population is 65 and older. “There’s some people that, regardless of what you do, it’s change, and they don’t want change, period,” said Fremont Mayor Scott Getzschman, who has helped approve the facility. “There’s nothing you can do to make them feel this is the right thing for Fremont.” But, he insists, there is no alternative. “You have to continue to grow, or you die.”
At the center of Fremont is a cluster of handsome churches and a small liberal arts college. Around them, wood-frame houses line up snug along red-brick streets. Not many people walk down Main Street, but it still has a cobbler and a clothing store. There’s also a new café and co-working space with a monthly artisan market, and a handful of Hispanic groceries. On the south end of town, where the highway heads toward Omaha, viaducts rise over a huge track bed. Train horns blow all day and all night as commodities depart the industrial district. The grain elevators are taller than the church spires.
To hear the business case for Costco in Fremont, I sat down with Bob Missel in the back of Sampter’s, the Main Street clothing store his grandfather started in 1925...
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