Last year Farmers Branch, a Dallas suburb of some 26,500 people, erected a giant American flag on the edge of town, in the middle of a few acres of mowed grass. “You need a little imagination to see what this is going to become,” I was told by Tim O’Hare, a first-term city councilman and candidate in this month’s mayoral election, as we drove past. He was showing me the town—or, rather, two towns, the one that exists and the one that he envisions. The field had been christened Liberty Plaza, and following the construction of a long-awaited Dallas Area Rapid Transit station, it would one day anchor a bustling new neighborhood. Instead of a scruffy strip of land, “there will be residences and offices and shops,” he said. “It will be a mixed-use little urban living area. Farmers Branch will actually have a downtown”—albeit on the town’s eastern periphery.
O’Hare has spent most of his 38 years in Farmers Branch, where he believes he must have been, at five feet eight, the smallest wide receiver from his high school ever to make first-team all-district. Now an attorney with his own practice, he is clean-cut and confident and says he doesn’t think of himself as a politician, though this is a statement seldom uttered by anyone but politicians. Clearly he has given some thought to how his town is seen by outsiders. As we toured around in his sizable black SUV, he kept gesturing in one direction or another to indicate hypothetical passers-by—people coming in from DFW Airport or driving along Interstate 35 or traveling by light-rail—who he hoped would take notice of the improvements, which would be “neat” and “nice” and “incredible” and “unique.” Of Liberty Plaza he said, “Eventually we’re going to get a giant sculpture. We haven’t picked what yet, but when I say ‘giant sculpture,’ I’m talking about an Iwo Jima-type memorial. It will be the kind of thing that when you’re watching the Dallas Cowboys play on Sunday, they’ll show it during the commercials. You know how they show the landmarks of their city? It will be that.”
In fact, O’Hare had already drawn considerable attention to Farmers Branch after suggesting in August 2006 that the city try to rid itself of illegal immigrants. At the time, the national Republican party had made immigration a top issue, and the town of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, had passed an ordinance that barred employers from hiring illegal immigrants and landlords from renting to them. (More than thirty towns have since tried to implement similar regulations.) Meanwhile, in Farmers Branch, two illegal immigrants had been charged with the murder of a toddler. That November, the city council passed an ordinance that would have required landlords to verify that new tenants were either citizens or legal immigrants. O’Hare found himself giving one interview after another—to radio stations, to newspaper reporters, to CNN—nearly all on the subject of immigration.
Over time he began to feel that the deluge of press had portrayed the city in a lopsided fashion: “Illegal immigration is important to our residents, it’s important to our council, but we are about so much more than that, and that’s all media folks want to talk about.” O’Hare, on the other hand, wanted to talk to me about the cast-iron street signs with finials that the city had installed, about a city program to encourage people to remodel their homes, and about the need to redevelop the old, elephantine shopping centers at the intersection of Valley View and Josey lanes, known as the Four Corners, which once served as the city’s de facto downtown. In a blog on O’Hare’s campaign Web site, his boosterish posts apprise readers of his conversations with developers, who with any luck will soon bestow fountains and condos and a SuperTarget and “Chili’s or Chili’s-type restaurants” upon the city. Warding off illegal immigrants is just one component of that program.
Texas has seen such things before. In the 1850’s, following the Mexican War, Austin and Seguin expelled Mexicans on the grounds that they were horse thieves and insurrectionists, as David Montejano recounts in Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas 1836—1986. Six decades later, a spike in immigration prompted dire warnings; one University of Texas professor lamented that because of Mexicans, whole neighborhoods were “slowly passing into decay.” Much as O’Hare might object to the comparison, the troubles he has attributed to illegal immigrants—itinerancy, crime, slummy apartment complexes—echo the age-old complaints.
After the city council raised the question of how to curb illegal immigration, a non-Chili’s-type restaurant called Cuquita’s, which had recently opened in the Four Corners, became a locus of the opposition. This was an accident, according to co-owner Elizabeth Villafranca, whom I met one morning at the restaurant. “I was sitting at home, drinking my coffee and reading the paper, and I saw this article about this city councilman blaming the city’s problems basically on Hispanics and illegal aliens,” she said. She decided to attend a council meeting that night, thinking it would serve as a civics lesson for her daughter. “We made a sign saying ‘We mow our lawn, we pay our taxes,’” she said. “We showed up, and there was nobody else there. By default I was interviewed by all of the media, but not because I was any kind of leader.”
Soon she was collaborating with other residents, the ACLU, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Bickel and Brewer Storefront, the pro bono arm of the Dallas law firm Bickel and Brewer. Several lawsuits were filed, charging that immigration enforcement should be left to the federal government and that the way in which the ordinance had been adopted had violated the Texas Open Meetings Act. Opponents united under the slogan “Let the voters decide” and petitioned to put the ordinance on the ballot. The petition succeeded, but in May a revised version of the ordinance was approved by a wide margin: 4,059 to 1,944. A month later, a federal judge issued