Farmers Branch Has Spent Five Years and Millions of Dollars Trying to Keep Out Mexicans. Is It Time for a Truce?

Until five years ago, Farmers Branch (pop. 28,000) had about as much renown as "a speck on a flea," the town's former mayor once remarked. It was just one landlocked postage stamp in a melange of inner-ring suburbs. But as the turn of the 21st century came and went, it became something else: a thriving Hispanic-majority enclave where cheap housing was plentiful and paleterías and panaderías sprang up alongside Dairy Queen and Beauty Express. A new community was growing in the midst of — and separated from — this historically Anglo 'burb.

Take a drive through town and you'll see it. Start out on the east side, around Brookhaven Country Club, or the Wooded Creek neighborhood, and you'll find sprawling, well-maintained ranch homes and two-story brick affairs with red-clay tile roofs, wrought-iron gated drives and emerald lawns and hedges tended by Latino yard workers.

Head west across Webb Chapel Road, and the big houses give way to apartment buildings and wood-frame bungalows. Battered trucks and flatbed trailers sit in driveways and along curbs, and the Latino faces you pass tend their own lawns.

Farmers Branch hasn't so much grown as its complexion has darkened over the last 20 years. You wouldn't know it by looking at the City Council, though. That's because the voting bloc that does the electing in Farmers Branch's at-large council system isn't on the west side of Webb Chapel. It's in the country club and the community of white, politically active seniors who were born here and are determined to see their beloved city returned to a white and solidly middle-class town.

All of this might help explain how Tim O'Hare, a young personal-injury lawyer, won a seat on the City Council and then became mayor after serving a single term, gaining enough political inertia to pass an illegal-immigration ordinance that would become the most controversial issue ever to roil Farmers Branch. By 2006, Farmers Branch would join two other tiny towns and, later, Arizona as Petri dishes in Kansas-based immigration warrior Kris Kobach's experiment to test how far local governments may go to enforce federal immigration law.

To reverse the alleged decline in property values, and the perceived overcrowding of public schools caused by an influx of what O'Hare described as "less desirable people" who "don't value education" and "don't take care of their properties," the council required every apartment complex in town to verify that its tenants were here legally. When a state court blocked that rule, Kobach, the secretary of state in Kansas, helped them write a second, then a third, each tweaked to survive constitutional challenge and each tangled in lawsuits that would cost the city dearly.

More than five years later and $5 million spent defending the rules, the city persists in its quixotic, taxpayer-fueled campaign. Meanwhile, it keeps a watchful eye on the U.S. Supreme Court and what the U.S. Justice Department's challenge to local anti-immigration efforts may portend.

Meanwhile, the electoral ground that allowed Farmers Branch's ordinance to blossom may be shifting.

On a recent May afternoon Michelle Holmes, a City Council incumbent in the only contested race, sat at one end of the parking lot in front of City Hall. She wore a fire-engine red shirt with "LOVE" printed on it in big white letters. The logo was the council's attempt to rebrand the town. "Love The Branch," the slogan went. But the candidate bearing this message was a raw reminder of the spit-flecked animus the immigration debate continues to incite. In an widely circulated email only several months before, Holmes wrote to Mayor Bill Glancy and the rest of the council, insisting that unless "we see a change in our demographics, we will not see marked improvements at [R.L. Turner High School]. We are doing everything we can at the council level to make that happen by taking the fight against illegal immigration to the courts."

Holmes claims the "demographics" comment had nothing to do with ethnicity, but the man challenging her for the council seat, who was working the other end of the parking lot, wasn't convinced. "You can't be writing stuff like that and go to restaurants and ask for their support. That's wrong," says Jeff Fuller, who had just retired after 20 years directing the city's parks and rec department.

Fuller grew up in Hidalgo County, some six miles from the border. His son-in-law is Latino. His grandson was adopted from Guatemala. But Fuller at first supported the crackdown on illegal immigrants. Somewhere along the way, though, the conversation changed. "Illegal," he says, became just another way to say "Latino."

"Where our problem is in this city is that they tend to group everybody together," he says. "We have a great opportunity to heal the city now, to unite it. I don't want my grandson categorized by the color of his skin."

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Brantley Hargrove