Valley Park to Mexican immigrants: "Adios, illegals!"

A small-town mayor's plan creates one big controversy.

And then there's the laudatory comment from Matt Lindgren, of Fort Worth, Texas: "Thank you mayor Whitteaker for your stand against illegal immigration. I salute your courage and your intestinal fortitude."

Whitteaker laughs and bellows, "He's talking about cojones!"

He quickly adds: "You better put 'nuts' in parentheses after that one."

The 1887 grain elevator neighboring Sacred Heart Parish.
Jennifer Silverberg
The 1887 grain elevator neighboring Sacred Heart Parish.
Pork steaks and bacon comprise the booty at the American Legion's Sunday "meat shoots."
Jennifer Silverberg
Pork steaks and bacon comprise the booty at the American Legion's Sunday "meat shoots."

The ink was hardly dry on the ordinance when some residents, quite pleased with the new law, began making anonymous calls to the St. Louis County Police Department, asking them to investigate certain homes for illegals. Officers responded by knocking on a handful of doors — sometimes late at night — and asking Hispanics to furnish proof of legal residency in the United States.

Dozens of Mexicans subsequently fled their homes, just as reporters and cameramen from NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and ABC's Nightline came to chronicle the discord.

The national coverage generated still more mail, much of it supportive.

"CONGRADULATIONS!!!!!!!" exclaimed Jill Willier of Des Peres. "Great National Broadcast!! You make ST. Louis PROUD, Thanks, neighbor!!!"

Whitteaker was beside himself. "I've made so many new friends on this issue!"

Stephanie Reynolds, meanwhile, seethed. A lifelong resident of Valley Park, owner of the Valley Deli, and landlord to numerous Hispanics, Reynolds sums up her thoughts on the law with one word: "Bullshit."

"How am I supposed to know the status of my tenants? It's not my place to ask. It's discrimination," she fumes. "My dad [a former alderman] warned me. He said, 'Stephanie, you shouldn't fight city hall. You really shouldn't. You can't fight 'em.

"Well, hell no, I can't! I said, 'Watch me.'"

On September 22 Reynolds and two non-resident landlords filed suit against Whitteaker and the city of Valley Park in St. Louis County Circuit Court, calling the ordinance unconstitutional, a violation of fair-housing laws and enforceable only through racial profiling. Three days later a judge issued a restraining order, preventing any landlord or business from being cited.

Still, Valley Park officials tried to get around the injunction by passing two new versions of the ordinance and placing the city's building inspector — rather than police — in charge of enforcing it. The most recent measure, approved unanimously on February 5, requires landlords to provide a family tree and citizenship status for all their tenants.

"I'm proud of the board of aldermen for passing these ordinances," Whitteaker said moments before the lawmakers voted. "I wish them good luck with the future." As the mayor's sister, city clerk Marguerite Wilburn, began to read the roll-call, Whitteaker flashed his characteristic ear-to-ear grin to a row of television cameras.

The board of aldermen are fighting the lawsuit and recently hired Jim Gwinner, a GOP fundraiser and Valley Park resident, to raise several hundred thousand dollars for the city's legal defense.

When Reynolds v. Valley Park goes to trial March 1 in St. Louis County Circuit Court, Linda Martínez, a lawyer with the Bryan Cave firm in St. Louis, will be squaring off against Kris Kobach, a maverick Kansas City attorney and favorite right-wing pundit of FOX News' The O'Reilly Factor.

City attorneys warned Whitteaker not to discuss the case with Riverfront Times, for fear that he might use ethnic slurs. "Oh, they don't want me to say something that could be helpful to the other side," the mayor explains.

Such as?

"Oh, you know, like 'wetbacks' or 'beaners' or something."

Whitteaker says the idea for the law came to him one morning last summer while listening to a radio-show interview with the mayor of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, whose similar ordinance is the subject of an ongoing legal skirmish.

"The problems they had in Hazleton, I seen the same thing here, just on a smaller scale," Whitteaker explains, citing public urination and driving without insurance. He dodges repeated requests for specific evidence as to how undocumented Mexicans have "destroyed" Valley Park, stressing only that the ordinance pertains to people of all ethnicities.

"The key word," he maintains, "is 'illegal.' Why doesn't anybody get that?"

While motoring one late-January night past apartments rented to numerous Mexican workers, Whitteaker noted the location as one of the town's problem areas. Some of its residents, he says, were seen "doing outside drinking, urinating against the walls, hootin' and hollerin' at women."

The building belongs to Ray Thompson, proprietor of Ray's Tree Service, who hires some 30 Mexicans every year through a federal program. The neighborhood hasn't taken to them, Thompson says, citing the anonymous calls he's fielded over the past few years from people saying things like, "Get those fucking spics outta here!"

With a shrug and a sigh, Thompson adds: "There's a lot of prejudice in this town. I rented to a white gal once. She was married to a black man. I had calls on that, things like, 'Why are you renting to that nigger?' They ended up leaving. They couldn't take it anymore."

Whitteaker never expected the ordinance would "put Valley Park on the map," but now that it has, he clearly enjoys the high-fives from local bar patrons and inquiries from area legislators — most recently in St. Charles County — also interested in proposing similar legislation.

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