A Dallas suburb turns into a flashpoint in the immigration debate as the city council tries to find a way to kick illegal immigrants out

May 13, 2009

A CITY DIVIDED; Farmers Branch residents take sides over laws
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Monday, January, 15, 2007

FARMERS BRANCH — As the nation pauses to remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s hope for brotherhood across racial lines, a Dallas suburb’s struggle with illegal immigration suggests that some issues can still divide people into feuding groups marked mostly by ethnicity.

This time many see the turmoil in Farmers Branch as a dispute between Anglos and Hispanics. Tempers have blazed so intensely that people on both sides fear that the City Hall screaming matches could escalate into fistfights.

“The issue has divided the city. It has put neighbor against neighbor,” said Salvador Parada, a Farmers Branch resident who opposes the City Council’s stance on illegal immigration. “I don’t think we’re going to sit down and agree on things. It’s just going to get worse.”

At issue are three measures the City Council approved by 5-0 votes in November that are meant to curb illegal immigration:

An ordinance prohibiting landlords from renting apartments to illegal immigrants.

A resolution making English the city’s official language.

An order to have a city police officer trained to enforce federal immigration laws.

Opponents responded with lawsuits and a petition that put a referendum on the rental ordinance on the May municipal ballot. They say that immigration is a matter for the federal government and that Farmers Branch’s stance is alienating Hispanics.

Supporters say the measures are necessary because illegal immigration has overburdened local services, such as schools. They say the law needs to be enforced. They have also attacked the petition drive’s legitimacy, saying that elderly people were tricked into signing it.

God …

Farmers Branch is among a handful of communities nationwide where the clash over illegal immigration is playing out at the local level.

The City Council in Escondido, Calif., has also passed a ban on renting to illegal immigrants, but the city agreed not to enforce the ordinance last month after being sued by several individuals and groups. A lawsuit against anti-illegal immigration measures in Hazelton, Pa., is scheduled for trial in March.

In Farmers Branch, people on both sides of the debate express more confidence in defeating their opponents in the May referendum or in the courts than in working things out through dialogue.

Elizabeth Villafranca, who lives in Dallas and owns a Mexican restaurant in Farmers Branch with her husband, and a Farmers Branch resident reached little understanding when they quarreled before Monday’s City Council meeting. The exchange ended with the resident calling her a bully.

“I had to turn around and stop talking,” Villafranca said. “There’s no point. It’s like talking to someone that’s asleep.”

The clash over illegal immigration began almost as soon as anti-illegal immigration measures were proposed in August by City Councilman Tim O’Hare, 37, a personal injury lawyer serving his first term on the council.

O’Hare says he is bothered by what he saw as poor marks for Farmers Branch in D magazine’s annual ratings of Dallas suburbs. He says he believes that Farmers Branch would make more progress on improving public safety and schools if there were not so many illegal immigrants in the city. O’Hare says he also is worried by the changes in the city’s commercial center.

“It just kept filling up with Spanish-speaking businesses and restaurants,” he said. “You don’t need seven or eight Mexican restaurants in one center. … If you have 10 restaurants three blocks from your house, do you want all of them to be Italian?”

O’Hare set out to address some of these issues by proposing the anti-illegal immigration measures.

“I thought about it long and hard before I spoke. I prayed about it and met with a couple of ministers and an elder of my church,” said O’Hare, who attends the Farmers Branch Church of Christ.

Villafranca questions how O’Hare could propose such measures and claim to be a devout Christian.

“You look at his bio, and he’s talking about all these Christian groups that he belongs to. It’s not enough to be a country-club Christian anymore. … We are called to welcome the stranger,” she said.

O’Hare says he does not believe he’s doing anything un-Christian.

“We are not mistreating anyone, we are not being inhumane in any way, and I am unaware of any passage in the Bible where it encourages anyone to break the law,” he said. “Jesus never broke the law.”

… and country

Farmers Branch, like much of North Texas, is becoming more diverse. In this middle-class city of 27,500 residents, 37 percent of the population is Hispanic, according to the 2000 Census. A quarter of the residents were born in another country, and of those, 82 percent were born in Latin America.

Rick Johnson, a resident who supports the council’s efforts, says he worries that the schools are being dragged down partly by illegal immigrants and their children, who he says often show a “general lack of respect” and are part of drug and gang problems.

“This is about our kids and our grandkids. This is about the future of the country,” said Johnson, 42, a father of two. “At some point our country is just not going to be able to financially keep this going.”

O’Hare says he gets the same impression when he visits the schools.

“You go look at the people in school, and you look at who’s in the school, and you can figure it out pretty quick,” he said. “There’s no question Farmers Branch has a lot of illegal immigrants here.”

The federal Department of Homeland Security estimates that the Lone Star State has 1.4 million illegal immigrants. Only California has more.

But there are few accurate measures of the impact of illegal immigration. Illegal immigrants try to function under the radar. Some institutions, such as the public schools, do not ask people their immigration status, so there’s no record of their numbers in segments of society.

‘Nothing against Mexicans’

Opponents of Farmers Branch’s fight against illegal immigration see it as a campaign against Hispanics.

Farmers Branch resident Christopher McGuire says the City Council, composed entirely of white men, does not know enough about Latino culture.

“They have trouble pronouncing the names of Hispanic people who want to speak,” he said. “People try to find somebody weaker to blame, and that’s what’s happening now. The weakest people are illegal workers, but they’re really attacking Hispanics, particularly poor Hispanics.”

Villafranca said implementing the city’s anti-illegal immigration policies could start a “witch hunt.” Parada expressed fears of racial profiling.

People who support the City Council cringe at accusations of racism, but some of their statements stoke fears that the growing Hispanic population is seen as a threat.

Gerald Sanders, who has lived in Farmers Branch since 1960, stood before the City Council on Monday night and said, “When I go to pick up my little blond-headed granddaughter at R.L. Turner [High School], I’m appalled at what I see.

“We’re educating another country, and that’s not right.”

He added: “Now, I have nothing against Mexicans. My youngest daughter’s godparents are Mexican.”

Statements similar to Sanders’ disclaimer are part of nearly every conversation with City Council supporters. They take great pains to stress that they’re not racists. Johnson talked about how he coaches a diverse group of kids in football; his friend Tom Bohmier said roughly the same thing about his work as a baseball coach.

As Johnson talked in a Mexican restaurant in Farmers Branch, he noted that a black couple had taken a seat behind him.

“This is our community,” he said.

Different cultures, different views

Even academics cannot agree on what’s behind the divide in the immigration debate.

David Landes, professor emeritus of history and economics at Harvard University who studies the role of culture in human affairs, says he believes that most opponents of illegal immigration hide their prejudices behind claims that they just want to see the law enforced.

“I think the Anglos are unfavorable or hostile to the culture of Mexican immigrants or would-be immigrants, and would like to enforce the law as a way of keeping them out,” he said.

But that view is not shared by Lawrence Harrison, a senior research fellow at the Fletcher School, a graduate school of international affairs at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., who focuses on culture.

He says he believes that there are too many Hispanic immigrants for America’s melting pot to smooth out differences — and that citing the law is not wrong. He says deference to the law illustrates a cultural difference between Anglo-Americans and Hispanic immigrants.

“The rule of law is something that is much more well-established in our culture than it is in Latin American cultures, so it is relevant,” he said. “It’s sort of a symbol of the cultural difference.”

But Rose Villazor, an assistant professor at the Southern Methodist University Law School, says Latinos might question bold talk about the rule of law because U.S. law has failed to protect minorities in the past.

“They look at this and say, ‘Is this really about the rule of law … or is it really about trying to drive out a population from a certain place?’” she said.

Villafranca says the City Council’s measures are not propping up immigration law but creating an atmosphere of intimidation.

“The only thing they’re doing is scaring people to death,” Villafranca said.

She said a speed trap that police recently set up near some low-income apartments was perceived as a way to harass Hispanics, even though Villafranca said that was not the intent.

A few hours later, a Hispanic worker interviewed on his apartment doorstep made this very complaint. Jose Alvarez, 51, said the police seemed to be stopping only Hispanic drivers.

“What does that say?” he said. “It’s pure racism.”