Lessons from the suburbs

Farmers Branch, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, has earned the distinction of being the first city in North America to criminalize landlords who provide shelter to non-citizens. While almost 50 cities across the country have attempted similar bans, many have been defeated in the courts and none have been enacted by city residents via the ballot box. Ordinance 2903, the first ban to succeed in a citywide vote, requires landlords to verify U.S. citizenship and will apply a $500 per day fine to owners for every tenant who is not a legal resident.

The anti-immigration measure won by a margin of 68 percent to 32 percent, prompting proponents to boast that residents had “stood up for Farmers Branch.” In fact, although the mainstream press had been predicting a historic turnout, the final numbers indicate that less than half, only 43 percent of registered voters, cast a ballot. Higher voter participation occurred in a nearby suburb where a secondary school bond initiative was on the ballot.



Disastrous consequences

Although the immediate effect of the new law may seem to impact only a small number of North Texans, the message from supporters has been that this is only the beginning of their agenda. They see the election result as sending a loud message to the federal government to enact harsher immigration legislation.

Spearheading the divisive and xenophobic movement in Farmers Branch is council member Tim O’Hare, a personal injury lawyer whose name is now prominent among Texas reactionaries.

O’Hare claims to have been contacted by many city administrators around the country and has offered to help them in their efforts to crack down on the undocumented.

A campaign of disinformation and fear-mongering has assaulted residents in Farmers Branch since the summer of 2006, and Ordinance 2903 proponents were able to convince voters that everything wrong with the city, from property values to public school performance, could be blamed on a growing illegal population.

The local mayor, economics professors from the nearby University of North Texas, and the state comptroller all tried patiently to explain that these purported facts were skewed. Unfortunately for residents who could not or would not see the real numbers, the city’s financial problems are now inevitable. Four lawsuits have been filed against Farmers Branch, and a law firm representing the town in its related legal work has already billed $262,000. Observers expect legal costs to rise to about $5 million over the next few years.

Meanwhile, landlords have already begun experiencing a decline in occupancy rates.

I spoke with two former apartment managers with 20 years’ experience between them. They now work in the corporate offices of one of the nation’s largest owners of apartment communities.

“It doesn’t seem fair to me that a law would actually require landlords to discriminate against people who need homes for their families, ” said former manager Casey Thornton. “And in areas where occupancy rates drop dramatically, managers have no choice but to begin reducing income and credit guidelines for prospective tenants, which is likely to have the effect of creating substandard communities within a city.”

Her colleague Janine Rodriquez-Zuniga stated, “Just the fear of being targeted by hate will drive many legal citizens from Farmers Branch. They sense it already, shopping for groceries, taking their children to school. They feel unwanted, even threatened by their Anglo neighbors.”

Despite damage to the city’s image — a town pitting neighbor against neighbor in an almost Twilight Zone-like episode of hysteria and fear — proponents of the anti-immigrant measure celebrated and proclaimed a great victory.



Learning from defeat

It is likely that more local referendums are on the horizon. While the noncitizens of Farmers Branch garnered the support of Latino organizations such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and League of United Latin American Citizens, many progressive groups did little more than lend their organizations’ names as endorsers for the opponents of Ordinance 2903.

Exceptions include local state representatives who organized a workshop aimed at assisting immigrants in completing their citizenship paperwork, Danna Pyke of the Dallas Peace Center and the grassroots organization Let The Voters Decide, which worked tirelessly to educate and register voters. Unfortunately, voter turnout among opponents of the ordinance still fell short.

Successfully combating racism and xenophobia will mean that citizens of all races and all workers whose future is certainly bound up with their immigrant neighbors must come forward in the fight and show up at the polls. Erroneous and sensational information will have to be challenged at every opportunity and on a very local level. Resistance to reactionary nationalism and bigotry must be a priority for every citizen. Only through unity will we prevail.

Lisa Casey Perry (perry5 @swbell.net) is an activist in North Texas.