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

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Fuller believes it's time to give the voters a chance to decide: If the ordinance suffers yet another court defeat, is it time to quit, or to take it all the way to the Supreme Court?

Some say that a Fuller victory would constitute a referendum on five years of division. "It's the biggest foo-pah the city ever did," says Roger O'Brien, a Brooklynite who has lived in Farmers Branch since 1968, as he headed into City Hall to vote. But the ethnic politics of Farmers Branch are never quite that simple.

The unrest in Farmers Branch began with a killing. On a May night in 2006, a dozen or more reports from an assault rifle rang out in a working-class neighborhood on the west side of town, near Josey Lane. A truck sped away, and Jesus Gallegos checked his house for bullet holes. Then he picked up his 18-month-old daughter, Eva Marie. The toddler was dead, a bullet through her tiny skull. Three weeks later, police arrested two acquaintances of Gallegos they believed were responsible. Police said they were suspected illegal immigrants.

The call for a crackdown came swiftly. "We need to address illegal immigration in our city and we need to do it now," O'Hare, who had been elected the year before, wrote to his fellow council members. "Drive around our city. [Councilman Bob Moses] said he doesn't want our city to become a ghetto. Half of our city already is. More of it will be if we don't do something quickly.

"I do not like to use a little girl's death to support a point, but the truth is more people will die if we don't take action."

O'Hare did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, but in an email to then-council member Charlie Bird that June, he wrote, "My family has been here since 1956 and almost everyone that I consider family lives here. I don't want us to have to move. I don't want to have to live somewhere else. But, I'm not going to live in Oak Cliff, which is what we are becoming and going to become if we don't make some serious changes and spend some money. ... I personally believe that the type of families and development we want in our city will be encouraged if we took steps to drive out illegals."

Sometime that August, David Koch, a local real-estate attorney, reached out to the Immigration Reform Law Institute, the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization that advocates for a sweeping immigration moratorium. In the previous several months, IRLI and Kobach had written ordinances to prevent undocumented immigrants from renting apartments in Valley Park, Missouri, and Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Koch conveyed the council's receptiveness to similar measures. Soon, the council received a copy of a model law from IRLI.

Farmers Branch was an ideal candidate to test out the group's ordinances. Like Valley Park and Hazleton, Farmers Branch was a small town that had seen its Hispanic population soar. And though the data didn't support it, many of each town's white residents believed that illegal immigrants were responsible for more crime, more school crowding and decreasing property values.

Farmers Branch, City Manager Gary Greer would later admit, had no hard numbers indicating just how much of the Latino population was undocumented, or any data on what kind of impact illegal immigration had.

Police Chief Sid Fuller said, "Are they responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime? That's not the case. That's not what we've seen."

But town leaders dreamed of transforming Farmers Branch. City Council members had visions of young families with disposable income. In the council chambers, the drumbeat was growing louder, though it wasn't directed solely at illegal immigrants. Councilman Ben Robinson recommended that August that the public library pull foreign-language materials from the shelves. O'Hare recommended cutting funding for the children of undocumented immigrants attending a summer youth program.

Several hundred protestors hoisting American flags marched on City Hall that month, chanting "O'Hare must go! O'Hare must go!"

Mayor Bob Phelps, a septuagenarian insurance salesman who'd been a fixture of Farmers Branch government since 1986, appealed for calm. In an open letter, he wrote, "... This problem will not be resolved by local governments throwing tax dollars at a problem that will only cost more tax dollars in lengthy litigation."

The previous city manager, responding to a query from Robinson about the advisability of an ordinance preventing day laborers from gathering within the city limits, warned of a lengthy, expensive and pointless fight ahead. "It is important to note that lawsuits such as the one currently pending against Hazleton are not covered by the city's insurance policy. Therefore, the city would have to assume 100 percent of the legal costs," Linda Groomer wrote. "In the meantime, the very same issues are being litigated by somebody else with somebody else's money, namely Hazleton. I strongly recommend against spending local FB tax dollars to join a legal battle."

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Brantley Hargrove