By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Farmers Branch's population of 27,508 was 37 percent Hispanic in 2000, according to the U.S. Census, and by all accounts that percentage has surged in the past six years. Yet all six city council members, including the mayor, are white. Farmers Branch is one of dozens of towns and suburbs across the country that have considered measures to restrict illegal immigration since last spring, when Congress debated an immigration overhaul and millions marched in support of immigrant rights. The ordinances proposed by O'Hare echo those passed in July by the town of Hazelton, Pennsylvania, and challenged in lawsuits as unconstitutional.
Dennis Bixler-Márquez, director of the Chicano studies department at the University of Texas at El Paso, says the trend illustrates the frustration of governments struggling to deal with the local impact of a federally managed—or unmanaged—phenomenon. And yet, he says, a driving force behind the hard-line, shut-the-door-and-send-'em back movement is ethnic identity. As the Hispanic population pushes 35 percent in border states like Texas and 15 percent nationwide, "the country suffers from cultural indigestion—the feeling that 'they'll change us,' that the prototype of what's American will change," Bixler-Márquez says.
In late August, O'Hare, a 37-year-old personal injury lawyer about a year into his first city council term, single-handedly dragged his Dallas suburb onto the national stage and triggered a racial maelstrom. He'd offered a three-pronged immigration plan to the city council: "Here are three things I think we should do," he said. "No. 1 is make it illegal for businesses to hire illegal aliens in this city. No. 2 is make it illegal to rent property to illegal aliens in this city. No. 3 is to quit using taxpayer dollars for things like [children's summer camps] to benefit illegal aliens." He also urged a measure declaring English the town's official language.
In the aftermath, syndicated talk radio host Lynn Woolley would hail him for revving "a movement for rule of law," and the Chicago Tribune would describe him as "in the vanguard of an English-only movement that is gaining new adherents in cities and states across the nation and causing alarm among Hispanic civil rights groups."
O'Hare's claims that Farmers Branch schools and property values had degenerated and that crime levels had risen—which he blamed on illegal immigrants who he said neglect their yards and open too many Spanish-speaking businesses—were later debunked. At one meeting, he conceded that he had no statistics to back up his claims. And as the controversy unfurled, critics called him a hypocrite for having advertised "Se habla espanol" on his firm's Web site.
O'Hare and his supporters insist they don't take issue with immigrants or Latinos, just "illegal" ones. Yet almost a year after the town's former police chief was suspended for making a racial slur against Vietnamese people, the public discussion O'Hare initiated has laid bare the town's racial fault lines.
There was Douglas Cucovatz, who complained that when he moved to Farmers Branch 10 years ago, he was surrounded by old people and now he's surrounded by Mexican immigrants.
"Mr. Mayor," he said, addressing the city council, "you live in a nice house and you don't have them next to you, but if you go to Marietta, my street, you'll see four adults and seven kids living in one house. We need to put [these proposals] on the agenda and make it illegal to have anything to do with the Spanish, or Mexicans, in this neighborhood."
There was Robin Bernier, who took the podium wearing an American-flag T-shirt and said, "Mayor, the residents of Farmers Branch have voiced their opinion on illegal immigration...so you have a choice: Support the law-abiding residents of Farmers Branch who want these ordinances passed, or support the illegal aliens and their La Raza/ACLU race-baiting lackeys. Which do you choose?"
O'Hare claims the media have inaccurately portrayed Farmers Branch as divided over the issue of illegal immigration, saying the letters that he's received support the proposals at a rate of "35 to 1." There's no doubt a group has rallied around him, namely about 1,500 people who've signed a petition on supportfarmersbranch.com, a Web site launched to promote the measures. On the Lynn Woolley Show in September, O'Hare dismissed the opposition as "maybe one or two people who want to be on TV and hold signs." In fact, dozens of residents spoke out against the measures at two separate city council meetings and at a Saturday protest rally. And outside City Hall, Anglos and Latinos alike described a new climate of suspicion and fear in Farmers Branch.
One white longtime resident said she felt pressure to take sides and noted a surge in Mexican jokes. In immigrant circles, people told of mean glares at the grocery store and of feeling singled out. One man asked me to show identification when I approached, citing fears of harassment and unfounded rumors that day laborers had been chased by the Texas Minutemen.
Not surprisingly, undocumented immigrants have kept quiet. But naturalized citizens, legal residents and American-born Latinos have raised their voices to challenge O'Hare and the hard-line immigration platform used as a rallying cry for Republicans nationwide. Predictions of a pronounced jump in new Latino voter registrations in the wake of the national marches last spring haven't come to pass, but advocates and academic observers such as Bixler-Márquez say Hispanics who've never before been politically active have marched, made speeches and signed petitions.