Monday, May 14, 2007

Farmers branch

image:Farmers Branch story-AP photo

Occasionally I regret not discussing local happenings more often. Well, Saturday we had a pretty big local happening, when Farmers Branch passed prop 2903, designed to fine landlords that rent to undocumented immigrants, of whom I guess there are quite a few in FrB.(According to WFAA, the Dallas ABC affiliate, Farmers Branch has a population of around 30 thousand, and is somewhere around 60-65 percent white and 30 percent Hispanic, whereas they were closer to 97 per cent caucasian in 1970.)

The proposition passed pretty overwhelmingly, by a 68 to 32 percent margin, with approximately 3,000 out of about 14,100 eligible voters participating in the vote. That's about 10 percent of the population, maybe 22 percent of the eligible voters-- which is high for a municipal election.

(On a side note, I've always marveled at the strange consistency with which many people seem to avoid voting in municipal elections and are more likely to vote in national elections-- sometimes even only when it's a presidential election, and not in the "off-year" congressional elections-- even though it's precisely in the "smaller" elections in which they're more likely to have a meaningful impact on the outcome and on their day-to-day lives-- well, at least theoretically! )

But what will 2903 accomplish? Some people who've never heard of FrB will regard the little Dallas bedroom community as a hickish outpost full of mean people, while others will admire them and decide to stir similar trouble in their own communities. Presumably they don't care about the former; on the face of it, that lop-sided vote suggests that even though only about 20-22 percent of the eligible voters participated, it's probably a fairly accurate reflection of the local disposition. The Houston Chronicle ran the standard AP story with the title

"Farmers Branch voters back immigration limits", while the Washington Post ran the story as

"Anti-Illegal-Immigrant Law OK'd in Texas", which strikes me as slightly more accurate. (I would've specified "Texas suburb", as opposed to suggesting it was a state-wide referendum. Nevertheless it looks like pretty much the same story.)

But aside from the reputation of Farmers Branch, I really don't see what it will do besides make the lives of the affected individuals more difficult. Landlords will understandably resent having to enforce it, especially as several lawsuits questioning the proposition's legality are looming. A group called "Let the Voters Decide" commissioned a study about the economic impact of illegal immigrants on FrB whose results suggest that the ordinance would have an adverse economic impact on FrB. Tim O'Hare( the FrB councilman who started this whole thing late last year when he proposed the ordinance) discounted the study, citing another study by the state comptroller, which I'd like very much to see. From the WFAA story:

City Council candidate David Koch took issue with several points – chief among them was the carefully edited use of an economic study on illegal immigration by the state comptroller last December.

The Farmers Branch study noted that "labor and spending of undocumented immigrants is having a huge positive effect on the state's economy, adding nearly $18 billion annually to gross state product."

The comptroller's report, the study noted, also said that "undocumented immigrants paid $425 million more in state taxes in fiscal 2005 than the cost of providing them education, healthcare and incarceration services."

But Mr. Koch said that the original comptroller's report also pointed out that local governments take a financial hit from illegal immigration. Counties take in $513 million in local taxes and revenues – but spend $1.44 billion in indigent care and law enforcement costs, according to the comptroller's report. Cities and school districts suffer as well, the report said.

"The only thing they really look at is the financial benefit that the state incurs," Mr. Koch said. "They completely ignore all the costs shoved down the throats, at the local level, of school districts, hospitals, counties and cities."

I don't know how to evaluate the financial arguments. I poked around the internets a bit, looking for some authority-- the closest I could find was this from the Economic Policy Institute:

"Immigration and poverty: Disappointing income growth in the 1990s not solely the result of growing immigrant population"(PDF here)

But I'm suspicious of the anti-immigrationists. On the national level, I think that people like Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo are beating the anti-immigrant drum mainly as a tactic: getting the GOP rank-and-file riled up, especially now that

A. abortion appears to be tanking, and
B. The Iraq War has lost some of its conservo luster,

requiring another wedge issue to get people hot and bothered so republicans can rally their base.

Maybe I'm oversimpliying. At the national level, both the dems and the republicans favor unfettered free trade and exporting our industrial jobs overseas. They don't say so, naturally, but they both do. The argument that illegal immigrants take jobs away from Americans I have difficulty accepting. The affiliated argument, that their presence in the workforce acts to depress wages, strikes me as a more serious one. The EPI study above suggests there is a correlation, but it's far less than critics suggest.

Nevertheless, blaming immigrants for the contraction of the American workforce is easier than blaming ourselves. [via] As states deliberately underfund education and allow tuition at state-supported colleges to spiral out of control on the one hand, and politicians keep resisting federalized, single-payer health insurance that would make American industry more competitive on the other, ordinary people have a hard time identifying a simple bogeyman who can be blamed for all our troubles. But the guy who washes your dishes at the Mexican restaurant is pretty handy.(Farmers Branch and the immediate area has a lot of restarants, and I'm guessing the people who voted for 2903 just want the help to live elsewhere and keep coming to town to wait on them and clean up after them.)

Even though I don't claim to know how the actual economic equation vis-a-vis immigrants plays out, I don't doubt the utility of immigrants as scapegoats for the overwhelmed and angry. While I don't want to automatically denounce immigrant-bashers as hate-mongers, my instincts tell me this is precisely what's going on. I also note that even though a Google News search for "Farmers Branch" will yield hundreds of results from all over, at least right now, this Dallas Morning News story below is the only one that I've found that mentions the mayor of Farmers Branch and his experiences this past week:

"Mayor: No real winners in this vote"

12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, May 13, 2007, Jacquielynn Floyd:

FARMERS BRANCH – Election night used to be a lot of fun for Bob Phelps.
As a popular, longtime mayor who ran unopposed for the last three of his four terms, he would spend the evening at City Hall announcing the returns.

If there were any hot races, this was the night for gracious gestures and all-is-forgiven displays of community solidarity. Mr. Phelps hasn't missed election night since 1986, when he was appointed to the town zoning board.

Until this year.This year, Mr. Phelps and his wife, Dee, left town.With what seemed like the whole nation watching and the town seething with tension, city leaders decided to let the results come directly from the county.

Besides, federal agents, sent to investigate the second act of vandalism at the mayor's house since the furor over illegal immigrants erupted, candidly told the Phelpses that out of town was perhaps the best place for them to be."These last few months have been the worst time – I don't know, maybe of my life," Mr. Phelps said a few nights ago as we sat around the kitchen table. "I've tried to do what's right. It's so disappointing."
After campaigning and leading for two decades as a fiscal conservative, he was appalled at the risk.The town has long prided itself on a "pay-as-you-go" policy. New building projects are paid for in full – Farmers Branch hasn't had to float a bond proposal in 20 years."We're already spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on attorney's fees," he said, defending against two lawsuits filed since the council first adopted anti-illegal immigrant measures a few months ago.

A few more years of vigorous litigation – after Saturday's vote, a virtual guarantee – will eat through the city's financial reserves like cows through a cornfield, he said. So, four days before the election, Mr. Phelps went public with what he had been saying privately for months: 2903 would be terrible for Farmers Branch.

"I'm getting hate mail," he said unhappily, as Mrs. Phelps leafed through a pile of printouts, reading from a few e-mails:
"You are an embarrassment to your city – please resign." "You are a pathetic excuse for a leader." "You are a traitor."

"I worry about him," Mrs. Phelps confided. "He's been under so much stress. People turned on him so fast."With a year left on his term, Mr. Phelps says he's not planning to quit, and he's certainly not considering relocation."We've been in Farmers Branch since 1955," he said. "Our friends are here."

With infinite sadness, he added: "I guess our enemies are here, too."

see also

Dallas Morning News:Farmers Branch election spending tops $57,000:
Opponents of the immigration ordinance are paying out the most

MSNBC:Texas town upholds immigration crackdown

from 2006:

Michelle Goldberg, in Salon: The Left splits over immigration

Dave Neiwert, Orcinus:"It's the Racism, Stupid"

By Susan Page,USA TODAY:"Nation splits 4 ways about illegals"

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