Texan town passes new laws to deter migrants

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A town on the edge of Dallas, Texas, took centre-stage in the national debate over illegal immigration yesterday after its council voted unanimously to penalise landlords who rent apartments to Hispanics without residency papers and to make English the sole language of city government.

With the 6-0 vote by council members, Farmers Branch became the first town in Texas to pass city laws aimed at illegal immigrants. The move echoes similar ordinances either considered or adopted recently in about 50 other towns across America.

The measures threaten landlords with fines of $500 (£260) if they rent space to illegal immigrants, and authorise local police officers automatically to screen anyone taken into custody to determine their residency status. English will become the only official language in town, with a few exceptions.

Such steps at the municipal level are a sign of hardening attitudes among conservatives nationwide over immigration at a time when President George Bush has signed legislation to extend the wall separating Mexico and the United States.

Civil rights groups contend that the ordinances passed by Farmers Branch and other towns violate federal law and amount to government-sanctioned discrimination and racism.

"These ordinances drive unnecessary tension in the city," Marisol Perez, a lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defence and Education Fund, complained after the Farmers Branch vote. "It puts the landlord in a very difficult position. You're putting them in the shoes of an immigration officer."

Even tougher restrictions were passed recently by the town of Hazelton, Pennsylvania, which included a requirement on residents to prove their legal status in the US before seeking to rent. They have been put on hold, pending an investigation into their legality by a federal judge.

The issue is especially sensitive in Texas, a state which was once Mexican territory and where many Hispanic families have roots extending back to those days.

Until fairly recently, Farmers Branch was a mostly white dormitory town for Dallas. Today, it has a swelling population of about 28,000, of whom about 37 per cent are Hispanic.

"They're afraid that Farmers Branch is becoming Hispanic," said Christopher McGuire, a resident of the city, commenting on the vote. "It's going to happen, and that's not a bad thing."