Thursday, November 16, 2006

Farmers Branch council OKs illegal-immigration measures


FARMERS BRANCH -- Despite loud protests from scores of pro-immigrant demonstrators, the City Council adopted ordinances Monday night to crack down on illegal immigration and to make English the city's official language.
Opponents of illegal immigration cheered when the council voted unanimously to pass ordinances that will:
Require city officials to conduct nearly all official business in English.
Prohibit landlords from renting apartments to people who cannot prove their citizenship or legal status.
Have city police enter into a cooperative agreement with federal immigration officials to target "criminal aliens."
Hundreds of people on both sides were turned away from the council chambers because of a lack of space. They sometimes tried to out-shout one another in the City Hall lobby by chanting slogans. A police officer with a bullhorn told them that they had to be quiet or leave.
Other officers milled around the crowd that was thick with American flags, protest signs and camera crews. Police kept riot gear, transparent shields, helmets with face masks and batons behind the receptionist's desk in City Hall's spacious lobby.
Such scenes could soon come to cities in Tarrant County, because anti-illegal immigration activists in Arlington and Fort Worth said they will push for similar measures. Members of city councils in Fort Worth, Arlington and Bedford recently told the Star-Telegram that they worry that such proposals could attract lawsuits and turn their meetings into heated debates.
Hispanic groups addressed the Farmers Branch City Council during its work session in the afternoon.
Members of the League of United Latin American Citizens presented a petition with about 150 signatures urging the council to drop the anti-illegal immigration measures.
Members of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund told the council that approving anti-illegal immigration ordinances would be a mistake.
"We are here not only to say that these ordinances violate federal law, but that these ordinances drive unnecessary tension in the city," said Marisol Perez, a staff attorney for MALDEF.
MALDEF holds that such ordinances are not legal because immigration law is the federal government's responsibility. This month, the organization sued Escondido, Calif., for passing anti-illegal immigration ordinances.
LULAC members presented their petition and argued that Farmers Branch could not promote itself to prospective home buyers if it was sending an anti-immigrant message.
"It's hypocritical to promote Farmers Branch as a great city when you're promoting hateful legislation," LULAC member Carlos Quintanilla said. "You can't promote Farmers Branch as a great city when you're denying people the right to live in apartments, when you're denying children the right to speak their language."
But others showed up for the evening meeting voicing strong support for Councilman Tim O'Hare, the ordinances' architect.
Robin Bernier, who said she lives in Farmers Branch, wore a shirt that said "I support the Tim O'Hare proposals."
She said she wanted to see an ordinance that would prohibit illegal immigrants from renting property.
"They end up with five or 10 people in a house and five or six cars outside," she said. "It's just not right. We don't want them renting to illegals."
The ordinance on renting takes effect in January. Landlords will be fined $500 if they rent to illegal immigrants.
The ordinance on English as the official language will not entirely ban other languages from city business. For example, police officers and firefighters could speak foreign languages during emergencies to people not fluent in English.
O'Hare complained that some were smearing the English-only ordinances as something that would prohibit Catholic churches from celebrating Mass in Spanish.
"Shame on anyone that said that or reported that in the media," he said.
Councilman Charlie Bird said the English requirement is meant to help immigrants assimilate.
"You should learn English if you want to live in the United States," he said.
The third ordinance will have local police participate in a program called 287(g) with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
ICE spokesman Tim Counts said only the Los Angeles County Jail and the state police in Alabama and Florida have gone though 287(g) training.
Representatives for the Fort Worth and Arlington police departments said that enforcing immigration laws is a federal responsibility, and that they could alienate segments of the Hispanic community if they enforce immigration laws.
At the Sept. 26 Bedford City Council meeting, Bedford Police Chief David Flory said having his officers enforce immigration laws would be an "unfunded mandate," meaning that there wouldn't be any federal money for the increased policing.
He said Bedford does not need to pursue illegal immigrants.
"We really don't think we have a problem with illegal aliens in this particular city," Flory said. "We don't run across them very often."