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Hispanic candidates travel a rocky road

Hispanic residents making their first run for office are on Saturday's ballot for City Council in Farmers Branch and Irving, where illegal immigration is a major issue.

The candidates, two of them 21-year-old college students whose parents are immigrants, say the issue is not the only thing that motivated them to run, but they oppose their cities' tough stands. They said the campaign trail has come with threatening phone calls, cold shoulders and doors closed in their faces.

No Hispanics have been elected to municipal office in Farmers Branch or Irving for at least 10 years, according to the Los Angeles-based National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Farmers Branch became a front in the anti-illegal immigration movement nearly two years ago when the City Council voted to bar landlords from renting apartments in the city to illegal immigrants. Lawsuits filed by opponents have prevented the ordinance from taking effect.

Irving made headlines when police began screening arrestees for possible referral to federal immigration officials. The city's policy has resulted in the deportation of about 2,700 people since September 2006.

The crackdowns have prompted rallies and counter-rallies attended by hundreds and heated City Council meetings, where the factions tossed insults back and forth. The home of Farmers Branch Councilman Tim O'Hare, the leader of the city's crackdown efforts and a candidate for mayor, was vandalized. O'Hare is running against Gene Blodsoe.

The Hispanic candidates say they can see the tension when they campaign.

"It's unfortunate that it's gotten ugly -- threatening calls and things like that," said Ruben Rendon, 58, a school psychologist running in Farmers Branch. "People said, 'I'm not talking to you.' And you don't even know anything about me. You just assume."


The Hispanic candidates say immigration is not their only issue. Irving City Council candidate Nancy Guadalupe Rivera, 21, a student at the University of Texas at Arlington, said she wants to improve park and recreational services. Irving mayoral candidate Rigo Reza, 37, said he wants to ensure that police have the equipment and training they need. Rendon wants more open government. And Claudia Villarreal, 21, a Brookhaven College student, bank teller and candidate for Farmers Branch City Council, said she wants to clean up trash in the commercial areas.

On immigration, the four disagree with their cities' tough stances.

Reza and Rivera said only serious criminals suspected of illegal immigration -- not people arrested on suspicion of minor crimes, such as traffic offenses -- should be turned over to federal authorities.

"I feel like [Irving has] been doing racial profiling, and that's not right," Rivera said.

Her opponent, incumbent Allan Meagher, 45, said illegal immigrants in Irving's jail should get deported regardless of why they were arrested.

"If you are an illegal alien in the state of Texas or in the United States and you commit a crime, no matter how minor, you need to be deported, and I stand behind that," he said. "You shouldn't select who we deport and who we don't."

Farmers Branch's mounting legal fees are a major issue. Rendon said the city is wasting money defending the rental ban in court. He said immigration enforcement should be left to the federal government.

"We just can't keep spending money like there's no tomorrow," said Rendon, who served on the city's Planning and Zoning Commission for nine years.

Rendon's opponent, Harold Froehlich, 60, a banker, said the court battles are worth the cost.

"Mr. Rendon is one of these people that wants the federal government to handle the immigration issue, and by doing so he would, in my opinion, turn Farmers Branch into a sanctuary city," Froehlich said.

"I called him on that and pointed out that the federal government hasn't helped us with our energy crisis and our Social Security crisis."


History suggests that candidates who want to ease up on the immigration issue will face uphill battles in Irving and Farmers Branch.

Last year, Farmers Branch voters approved the rental ban by a 2-to-1 ratio in a referendum. When Hispanic leaders called on Irving residents to phone City Hall to denounce the police program, the city got hundreds of calls; the callers favored the crackdown by 2-to-1.

Irving Mayor Herbert Gears, who is running for re-election, referred to challenger Roland Jeter as "my major opponent."

Reza said, "I'm certainly the underdog."