Looking on the Bright Side

Nine days after Farmers Branch voters overwhelmingly approved an ordinance that would ban apartments from renting to illegal immigrants, a federal judge on Monday issued a restraining order blocking the law from taking effect on May 22. Since last August, the suburb has been consumed by protests, counter-protests, shouting matches and legal battles. Now, with the ordinance's legality in question and lawsuits against the city continuing to pile up, it seems the results of the May 12 referendum have already become just another punch in a deadlocked, drawn-out fight. But few have bothered to reflect on the referendum itself—whether it was an embarrassing mistake for the law's opponents or not, and what it might mean for the future of the nation's immigration wars.

Months ago, when a group of anti-ban residents opted to petition the city council to put the ordinance on the ballot, some Latino activists warned against the idea. They pointed out that the city's high percentage of Latino non-citizens unable to vote meant slim chances for victory. They were right, of course. After the law was approved by 68 to 32 percent, supporters admonished opponents and remarked on the irony of the Let the Voters Decide campaign. So we asked a couple of the law's opponents about the referendum's impact.

The Reverend Peter Johnson, former Southern Christian Leadership Conference staffer, put the imbroglio in the context of the civil rights movement, saying that while the vote forced debate on the issue, the outcome wasn't a surprise and doesn't amount to a resolution. "If you were to ask people to vote on white-only signs in Birmingham, Alabama, they would have voted to keep the signs," he says. "There's a question of right and wrong, and it's not necessarily related to what the majority of the people want or don't want."

So, was the referendum campaign a mistake? Activist Domingo Garcia says no. "We believe the referendum brought to the surface the bigotry and racial divide that exists in Farmers Branch and what's spurring the anti-immigrant movement," he says. He argues the outcome will be useful in the latest lawsuit filed against the city, which seeks to force the city to change to single-member council districts. The at-large system, the lawsuit says, unlawfully weakens Latino voting power.

Garcia says the election outcome, which marked the nation's first ballot approval of a municipal measure targeting illegal immigrants, is useful in the way the 2005 House bill that would have made felons of illegal immigrants was: It reveals the extent of support for what civil rights leaders call discrimination and rallies opponents to fight back.

"Why don't they want Telemundo or Univision soap operas at the gym? Why don't they want the Carnival food branch there?" Garcia says, referring to the city's declaration of English as the official language and efforts to prevent a Carnival supermarket from opening. "I think the vote did flesh out what the real purpose is behind this ordinance." And, he added, the huge voter turnout—three times the number of votes cast in past municipal elections—included 32 percent opposing the measure. "There was a large-scale mobilization of a kind never seen before in Farmers Branch," Garcia says. "The consciousness and awareness of the Latino population has been transformed by what happened on May 12. I think, long-term, that's a positive."

 
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