Census : In Farmers Branch, Hispanics Now No. 1 Demographic Group

Census: In Farmers Branch, Hispanics now No. 1 demographic group

By Stephanie Sandoval
The Dallas Morning News, December 15, 2008

New census data shows the complexion of Farmers Branch is changing dramatically, giving activists fresh ammunition for their legal efforts and adding fuel to the debates over representation and illegal immigration in the city.

The estimates, released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau, reveal that Hispanics have eclipsed whites to become the city's largest demographic group. Residents overall are skewing older, and the median household income has declined.

Hispanic activists believe the information bolsters their efforts to change the way the City Council is elected. They plan to use the data in a federal voting rights lawsuit calling for creation of a Hispanic-majority voting district.

'It would show not only can you create a majority Latino district in Farmers Branch, but you could probably create two or three,' said Domingo Garcia, a Dallas attorney and plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Elected officials, meanwhile, say the data reinforces the need to revitalize neighborhoods.

On the city's biggest issue its ongoing efforts to drive out illegal immigrants the information is far less conclusive.

The figures, part of the American Community Survey, represent a composite of surveys taken from 2005 to 2007. It provides the first look at Farmers Branch socioeconomically and demographically since the 2000 Census. A Dallas Morning News analysis of the statistics showed:

* Hispanics accounted for 46.7 percent of the city's population, while whites made up 46.1 percent. In 2000, whites accounted for 55.8 percent, compared with 37.2 percent for Hispanics.

* The number of residents who speak Spanish at home increased, while the number who speak only English decreased.

* Home values have risen, but the majority of homes are valued at $150,000 or less.

Experts caution against drawing too many conclusions from the data, because some of the figures are built upon estimates with a significant margin of error. But they agree that the information draws a compelling picture of change.

Mr. Garcia says the new statistics provide the proof he needs to show a judge that a majority-minority single-member district can be created in Farmers Branch.

The voting rights lawsuit, filed shortly after the May 2007 City Council election, contended that had there been a single-member district, candidate Jose Galvez would have been the first Hispanic elected to the council.

Judge Reed O'Connor dismissed the suit in November. The plaintiffs have appealed.

The city's attorney in the suit, Bob Heath, noted that while the data shows an increase in Hispanics, it does not show where they live. It also does not show whether there are enough voter-eligible Hispanics in one area of the city to merit a revised district.

Mr. Heath said he thinks the new data probably would not be considered at the appeals level, where new evidence is generally not allowed.

Council member Tim Scott, who reviewed the census figures, said the statistics show a city in desperate need of renewal.

Residents who lived in their homes for decades have moved out, leaving aging houses that draw new residents with lower income and education levels, Mr. Scott said.

'That's just not sustainable as a city going forward, which is why we need some wholesale revitalization,' he said.

Besides the voting rights lawsuit, Farmers Branch has been tied up in litigation over efforts to ban most illegal immigrants from renting apartments and homes.

Opponents alleged the ordinances would unfairly target and drive Hispanics from the community. City officials have maintained the ordinances are not racist and are aimed at illegal immigrants of any ethnic background.

But what, if any, impact the ordinance and the city's subsequent efforts have had on the Hispanic population is unclear from the data.

City officials have said they believe the efforts largely symbolic, since the courts have halted them from implementing any of the laws have succeeded in making illegal immigrants know they are unwelcome.

The census data doesn't back that assertion, nor does it contradict it.

Foreign-born residents rose since 2000, and of that group, 3 of every 4 are noncitizens. But the noncitizen population has not increased dramatically since 2000, and that figure includes other categories besides illegal immigrants, such as legal permanent residents.

Adrien Cuellar-McGuire, a Hispanic Farmers Branch resident and chairman of the Brookhaven College department of humanities and cultural studies, said that for most new residents, the census data reflects what people have come to know about the city it's a bargain and a good location.

'The thing is, more and more people look like me who are moving into this area,' she said.