Minuteman conference in Kansas City faces opposition because of past controversy

Friday, February 1, 2008 | 1:24 p.m. CST; updated 8:03 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 15, 2008

KANSAS CITY — Members of an anti-illegal immigration group say they will use their regional conference this weekend to teach more people “the truth” about the organization.

The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps caused a stir four months ago when it announced it would bring the conference to Kansas City, where several minority groups were upset about the mayor’s appointment of a Minuteman member to the city’s parks board.

Frances Semler resigned from the parks board last week over her Minuteman involvement, but opposition to the group remains high as Minuteman members gear up for their conference.

Missouri and Kansas Minuteman Director Ed Hayes said he isn’t worried about anti-Minuteman demonstrations like the march the Common Table Coalition is organizing for Friday, the day the conference starts.

“They can do whatever they want to do,” Hayes said Thursday.

He just hopes the Minuteman message doesn’t get lost amid all the criticism about the group. He and other members say they get painted as racists and vigilantes, which Hayes says is neither fair nor true. Organizers say they want to use the conference to teach people about the real mission of the Minuteman group: lawfully protesting illegal immigration and reporting illegal activities to authorities.

“I hope people will get the backbone to come to this and learn the truth of the matter,” Hayes said of the two-day conference. He expects about 300 people at the opening ceremony Friday and about 150 at a members-only training session Saturday.

National Minuteman President Chris Simcox said the group’s members are activists who operate similarly to a neighborhood watch organization.

“We are advocating for our government to do its job and to enforce the borders and secure our country,” Simcox said. “Our efforts have nothing to do with vigilantism. ... It would be hypocritical of us to engage in unlawful activities when we’re the ones wanting the law enforced.”

The Minuteman group’s presence in Kansas City, particularly as it relates to Semler, has triggered several protests.

Two civil rights groups — the National Council of La Raza and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — decided not to bring their national conventions to Kansas City because of Semler.

And this week, several residents filed an affidavit to start recall proceedings against Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser, citing his appointment of Semler to the parks board among their problems with him.

The Common Table Coalition, which consists of religious, human rights and community group members, hopes to counter the Minuteman message with its march Friday.

“We’re going to make a joyful noise and take it up to the Minutemen and let them know Kansas City is a welcoming city,” coalition spokeswoman Angela Ferguson said. “We want a hate-free Kansas City.”

She feels that Minuteman members target Hispanics.

“They lump all Hispanics into the illegal category,” Ferguson said. “They blame (Hispanic) immigrants for crime and environment problems. They’re using them as a scapegoat for the issue of poverty.”

Simcox said the Minuteman event will be the first regional conference for the group, which is based in Arizona and has chapters throughout the country. Members expect to hold monthly conferences in different states from now through the summer, he said.

Even if the Semler controversy had not happened, Simcox said the group still planned to have the first conference in Kansas City because of its location.

“All roads lead right to Kansas City,” he said. “We have a high concentration of our chapters and volunteers in the Midwest.”

But he acknowledges that the situation with Semler has brought the event more attention.

Semler said Thursday that she will attend the conference and give remarks at the Friday opener, which also will include a presentation by Simcox and a documentary on illegal immigration.

“I had a choice to make and I chose the Minutemen because I think (illegal immigration) is a national issue that needs to be addressed,” said Semler, who has been with the group since December 2006. “And I intend to work very hard toward that.

“I think the people who have demonized the Minutemen need to come and see what they’re really about.”

She said the group is bringing illegal immigration to the attention of people who might not have thought about it otherwise.

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