Hispanic group withdraws conference from KC

Sunday, October 21, 2007

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A national Hispanic civil rights organization said Saturday it will not hold its 2009 annual convention in Kansas City because an opponent of illegal immigration was appointed to the city's park board.

The National Council of La Raza said its board of directors voted unanimously to pull the conference after being unable to reach an agreement with Mayor Mark Funkhouser over his appointment in June of Frances Semler, a member of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps.

"Our decision is a clear expression of support for Kansas City's Hispanic community," said board chairwoman Monica Lozano. "An active member of the Minutemen should not be an official representative for a city that purports to believe in diversity."

NCLR officials consider the Minutemen, who are known for posting sometimes armed patrols on the Mexican border and picketing construction sites where illegal immigrants may be working, hostile to Hispanics. The Arizona-based organization maintains it simply wants U.S. immigration policies enforced.

Funkhouser, who has stood by Semler throughout the controversy, issued a brief statement Saturday saying he was disappointed with La Raza's decision.

"We worked awfully hard to try to work out a compromise so they would come," Funkhouser said.

Funkhouser met Friday with local Hispanic leaders and a federal mediator to try to resolve the issue. Funkhouser and Rita Valenciano, of the Coalition of Hispanic Organizations, said both sides had agreed not to discuss the mediation session or La Raza's decision.

The NCLR and local groups had urged Funkhouser to force Semler to step down from the park board. Last week, NCLR said it would still hold the conference in Kansas City if Semler agreed to at least cut her ties to the Minutemen.

But Funkhouser and Semler refused both demands. Semler and the Minutemen have said her political views have nothing to do with her service on the park board.

"I think it's unfortunate," said Ed Hayes, leader of the Heart of America Chapter of the Minutemen. "The Minutemen are not about any race, we are about America and the word 'illegal' and the rule of law not being enforced by those who swore they would."

Janet Murguia, the NCLR's president and a Kansas City, Kan., native, said she was saddened not to bring the annual meeting to her hometown and felt Funkhouser "completely misunderstood this situation."

"The mayor has failed to take direct action and we hold him fully accountable," Murguia said.

Losing the 2009 convention is expected to cost the local economy in Kansas City an estimated $5 million to $7 million in revenue. It will also be costly for the NCLR, which will have to pay area hotels $75,000 for not filling reserved blocks of hotel rooms.

NCLR spokeswoman Lisa Navarette said the group hasn't decided where the convention will move to but said "we're looking at all of our options."

It's unknown whether the NCLR's decision will lead the NAACP to move its own convention from Kansas City in 2010, which officials estimated would cost the city another $9 million in lost sales.

NAACP officials have also criticized Semler's appointment and said they would consider NCLR's decision in their own deliberations.

Local economic development officials have also worried that the withdrawal could lead other groups to boycott the city.

After two hours of talks Friday at an area church, Funkhouser and the federal mediator, Pascual G. Marquez, regional director of the Community Relations Service, made no comment.

Marquez said federal law prohibited him from discussing his efforts. The half-dozen Hispanic leaders met for an additional 30 minutes by themselves but they also said they could not comment.

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