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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On September 5, 2006, the council sent a resolution to President George W. Bush and every city council and federal representative in the state. Every conceivable societal ill was laid at the feet of the immigrant population. The residents of Farmers Branch, it read, "are worried and concerned about the impact of illegal aliens on our national security, crime rates, illicit drug trade, the negative impacts on property values, public schools, Parkland (hospital system) ... taxes, welfare costs, and other potential major problems."

Unless the federal government dealt with illegal immigration quickly, Farmers Branch would "take whatever steps it legally can."

The town was ready to boil over. In early November, less than a year after Mayor Phelps and his wife moved into their new home in the revitalized Branch Crossing neighborhood, vandals spray-painted the words "Viva Mexicos [sic]" in 6-foot-tall letters on an outside wall. Within a year, someone hurled a rock through his window. Phelps says he later got a visit from two FBI agents. "They asked 'Do you think the Hispanics did this?' I said, 'Shoot no! They know how to spell Mexico!'"

A week later, the council unleashed a legislative landslide against undocumented immigrants and the foreign-born. It designated English as the city's official language, seeking to "preserve the rights of those who speak only English" by taking down municipal signs in Spanish and by scrubbing foreign languages from city paperwork.

It authorized the city manager to pursue an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to train a police officer to screen for suspected undocumented immigrants.

The council accepted a report from a group of locals tasked with creating a plan to revitalize the city. A few factors, the task force concluded, had prevented Farmers Branch from seeing the kind of development taking place in booming outer-ring suburbs. There was plenty of housing, but it was mostly affordable, 1,200-square-foot single-family homes the task force saw as the city's bane. But that wasn't Farmers Branch's only problem. "The City's Hispanic population increased from about 5 percent to 37 percent between 1970 and 2000 and continues to grow at a rate exceeding all other ethnic and racial populations in the City," the task force observed.

It identified the same "barrier" in the Four Corners area, once the city's dining and shopping hub. "In the Metroplex, retailers are responding to demographic change by increasingly marketing to growing ethnic populations, which in turn is giving rise to shopping centers devoted exclusively to ethnic populations, especially Hispanic, African American, and Asian populations. "

They were doing business, but not with the right people.

That night, after a closed session, the council unanimously approved the legal residency measure. A fine of $500 a day would be levied against any landlord who leased to an "unlawfully present" tenant. If the federal government refused to round them up, Farmers Branch would simply deny them shelter.

To understand the demographic shift in Farmers Branch is to comprehend the class and racial tensions shot through the immigration debate. Farmers Branch is the oldest settlement in Dallas County. The county's first cotton gin was built here. So, too, its first Baptist church and its first school. Farmers Branch was a land grant for "free and white" settlers. In 1946, the town incorporated, boasting some 800 inhabitants. By 1980, the population grew to more than 27,000. Roughly 8 percent of them were Hispanic. Five percent were foreign-born. Twenty years later, a quarter of the population was foreign-born, but not all of them hailed from Latin America. They were from the Pacific Rim, India and from all over Asia. But the most growth was among Latinos, who were 37 percent of Farmers Branch in 2000. By 2010, they had become the majority. City leaders despaired as home ownership rates fell and rental rates rose.

Historically speaking, a nearly direct antecedent for the council's actions can be found in 1870s San Francisco, according to an SMU anthropological study. Targeting the Chinese, the city banned carrying laundry tied to poles on the sidewalk. Another ordinance regulated the square footage apportioned to each adult, since many Chinese lived in cramped quarters.

Skeptical school board members have said the Farmers Branch council may have tried the latter by soliciting the names and addresses of children in the overwhelmingly Hispanic Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district. Some speculated that the council may have been attempting to determine whether the number of children per household violated a square-footage requirement.

Before long, the two rec-center televisions once set to Spanish-language channels were switched. A ban was placed on the opening of new cash-advance businesses. And when rumor spread that the Minyard grocery-store chain might open a Latino-centric Carnival grocer in Farmers Branch, council candidate Tim Scott organized a campaign to stop it. "I think it is a reasonable thing to wish for to have a grocery store that appeals to higher-end consumers," O'Hare told The Dallas Morning News. (At the time, Carnival had become Minyard's most profitable line of stores.)

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Brantley Hargrove