Columnist Macarena Hernandez of The Dallas Morning News and I chatted breezily before a radio show on which we recently shared our views.
That same week in Farmers Branch, a Dallas suburb, the city council unanimously approved levying fines on landlords who rented to undocumented immigrants, and imposed English as the town’s official language.
Hernandez said she understood that Houston, 240 miles southeast of Dallas, was a welcoming city. I explained Houston’s reputation mainly came from civic efforts to accommodate Hurricane Katrina evacuees. All segments of the city came together for that.
Similarly, Houston community leaders closed ranks when a local Republican-led petition drive, falsely claiming Houston was a “sanctuary” city and was letting immigrant criminals run loose, was expected to have a huge disruptive effect.
The initiative was stopped in its tracks by a broad-based community coalition. The alliance, spearheaded by City Council member Carol Alvarado, has now sent out an e-mail, warning that Farmers Branch-like ordinances “fuel hate and promote discrimination. These are certainly not policies we should embrace.”
A call went out for Project Houston members to report if similar proposals arise among area municipalities and school districts, not to get caught by surprise.
The Dallas-Houston differences, if indeed they remain that way, are noteworthy because both were among the last major cities in the nation to suspend “witch-hunt” activities that began in the 1950s. Groups such as the White Citizens Council, John Birch Society and the Minute Women were the most prominent. Alleging the nation was falling victim to an enemy within, they encouraged extraordinary measures, mostly around curbing civil rights, to counter the threat.
Back then, the external enemy was communism. Internally, it was portrayed as desegregation and social change. In November 1963, the virulent superstition was like a fever.
That month, President John F. Kennedy visited a Houston League of United Latin American Citizens gathering in his honor before attending a Democratic Party function. The next day he was assassinated in Dallas.
Two years ago, I asked a docent at the museum at the former Texas Book Depository Building in Dealey Plaza whether he knew of any reports of cheering over news that the president was shot. The docent told me CBS News reporter Dan Rather had reported something like that.
That too was what I witnessed that fateful day as a newspaper delivery boy at the dock of The Houston Press near downtown.
Today, most people have forgotten the hard debate following the assassination. It was about the other conspiracy concerning who killed Kennedy — not the one about who pulled the trigger, but the circumstances and attitudes of the time. The consensus was that a culture of hate killed John Kennedy.
Since then, a shroud of political correctness has made virtually everyone seem like a cheering Kennedy supporter. However, the truth is that not enough good, decent people spoke up when that wild mania was propounding fear about an alien takeover. Back then it was the Catholics, the Negroes, the liberal Northerners and some Jews.
Now, social intimidation is gaining favor again.
About 50 cities nationwide have considered or passed similar measures. Some 90 restrictive ordinances have cropped up around the nation this year. None was approved in Texas until Farmers Branch.
John Henry Faulk, himself a blacklisted writer and author of “Fear on Trial” (1963), enumerated five lessons learned from the Houston “red scare”:
— No subversive plots were uncovered.
— Respected citizens participated to strengthen their political advantage.
— The press was sheepish at best.
— The vigilantes took on totalitarian tendencies.
— Constitutionally protected rights, ideals and principles became the main victims.
Macarena Hernandez’s inquiry about a city challenged by real immigration flows and demographic change is in the right direction. Can a city be welcoming, protect citizen rights and prosper? Or do we need to respond in panic by strangling our Constitution to get even with a few immigrant day laborers and working-class people, even if they did commit a misdemeanor by crossing the border and speak languages unfamiliar to us?
The fact is, those who wear patriotic disguises in order to compromise constitutional rights already have proven themselves to be on the murderous side.
(Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail joseisla3(at)yahoo.com. For more stories visit www.scrippsnews.com.)