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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Latino residents may be forgiven, then, for feeling singled out. Father Michael Forge of Mary Immaculate Catholic Church says his congregation lost some 500 parishioners in the years since the debate began. "There is kind of a mild fear, an insecurity, when coming into Farmers Branch," he says.

Manuel Aguirre, a Mary Immaculate parishioner, delivers liquor and wine for a local distributor. Aguirre emigrated from the Mexican state of Michoacán 30 years ago. He was 16 at the time, and he brought with him his new wife. They settled in this area, raised three children and never left. His son is a teacher at Vivian Field Elementary. Aguirre doesn't begrudge the town the right to craft its own rules, but believes they're counterproductive. "Right now, the sentiment of the Hispanic community is that this is against the Hispanic people. They feel like it's an attack to the whole community."

Hugo Ramirez, another parishioner, is an electrical engineer at Nokia Siemens in Irving. He emigrated from San Miguel, near Guadalajara, after graduating from the Universidad de Autónoma Guadalajara. "When I came and I'm asked where I go to church, I say Farmers Branch. And they say, 'Why do you go there? They hate Mexicans,'" he says. "That's the first time I know this. You see the people is afraid. They cannot live in peace, and they're good people, just working. ... It's a way of terrorism, in my opinion, in terms of scaring people."

In the public library on a warm May evening, Teresa Puga takes a class of four Latina women and one man through English pronouns and verbs.

"We are friends. What is the to-be verb?"

"We are the world," croons Julio Herrera, the class clown. Herrera, a stocky man with mechanic's hands and ceaselessly smiling eyes, hopes to improve his lot by learning English in these free classes. He came to Texas from El Salvador eight years ago under temporary protected status granted because of the destruction wrought on his country by earthquakes in 2001. He is now a maintenance man at a local apartment complex. Learning English, he hopes, will enable him to better understand his duties at work. But he has another, more pressing motive: He wants to be able to converse with his daughters, who were born here and speak only English.

One of them drapes her arms around his neck as she waits for him to finish. The ordinance, he says, has brought more uncertainty into a life already wracked with it. "His daughters have come home from school crying because their best friends have moved from the city," says Rolando Puga, a volunteer teacher and Teresa's brother, who interpreted for Herrera. "They cannot live in this city."

What's more, Herrera's life has for eight years been measured in 18-month increments. Every year and a half, he waits to see if the State Department will renew the protected status of Salvadorean refugees. He doesn't know what he will do if it is revoked. His daughters are Americans. But because the ordinance's collateral damage would afflict citizen children and their undocumented parents alike, should it survive in court then Farmers Branch could no longer be their home.

Within weeks of the passage of the renter's ordinance, the city was hit with lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Bickel and Brewer Storefront, the pro-bono arm of Dallas' Bickel & Brewer law firm, filed suit on behalf of the owners of three apartment complexes. The firm also sued the city on behalf of Guillermo Ramos, a real-estate attorney who claimed the council's back-room deliberations violated state open-meetings law.

Days later, the city secretary certified the success of a recall petition on the ordinance with some 1,700 signatures. A referendum would be held the following May. Then, on January 11, the day before the ordinance was to go into effect, the state judge in Ramos' open-meetings case blocked the city from enforcing it.

A week later, the council directed the city attorney to draft a new ordinance. Only this time, the council enlisted the brain behind the ordinances challenging the federal government's primacy in immigration. "I got a phone call," says Kris Kobach, former counsel to U.S. Attorney John Ashcroft under President George W. Bush. "And I returned it and said, 'Your ordinance needs to be changed. It's not gonna stand up.'"

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Brantley Hargrove