FARMERS BRANCH, Texas – This Dallas suburb became the first Texas city to pass tough anti-immigration measures, prompting fears they could lead to sanctioned discrimination and racism.
City Council members unanimously approved fines for landlords who rent to illegal immigrants, making English the city's official language and allowing local authorities to screen suspects in police custody to check their immigration status.
The council made the series of 6-0 votes without discussion Monday night and took comment from the public afterward. A proposal to penalize businesses that employ undocumented workers was not voted on during the meeting.
Hundreds of opponents of the ordinances gathered in the City Hall lobby and a parking lot outside, waving American flags and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in English before the votes were taken.
Inside, supporters clapped as the votes were tallied in favor of the measures and later thanked council members for their action.
Attorneys with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a civil rights advocacy group, told council members before the vote that the proposals could violate federal housing laws preventing discrimination and the First Amendment.
One of the ordinances would force untrained business owners and landlords to evaluate a wide array of immigration documents to determine if the person carrying them is legally in the country, said Marisol L. Perez, a defense fund staff attorney.
"It puts the landlord in a very difficult position. You're putting them in the shoes of an immigration officer," Perez said.
The group said it would evaluate the measures to determine their legality.
"We passed this expecting to be sued," council member Tim O'Hare said after the vote.
Since 1970, Farmers Branch has changed from a small, predominantly white bedroom community with a declining population to a city of almost 28,000 people, about 37 percent of them Hispanic, according to the census. It also is home to more than 80 corporate headquarters and more than 2,600 small and mid-size firms, many of them minority-owned.
"They're afraid that Farmers Branch is becoming Hispanic," said Christopher McGuire, a resident of the city and spokesman for a group called United Farmers Branch. "It's going to happen, and that's not a bad thing."
More than 50 municipalities nationwide have considered, passed or rejected similar laws, but until now that trend hasn't been matched in the Lone Star State.
A vote this year in Hazleton, Pa., approved fining landlords who rent to illegal immigrants, denying business permits to companies that employ them and requiring tenants to register and pay for a rental permit.
However, a federal judge temporarily blocked enforcement of the Hazleton ordinance while he considers a lawsuit against the town by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups.