Feb. 18, 2003, 10:49PM

Activists protest firing of local immigrant-rights leader

Groups speculate Jimenez fired for opposing closure of office


Houston immigrant-rights activists held a vigil Tuesday evening to protest the closing of the local office of the American Friends Service Committee and the firing of its influential former leader, Maria Jimenez.

Jimenez was fired after more than 16 years at the Quaker-affiliated organization, where she championed the rights of dispossessed and disenfranchised immigrants. Some local leaders have written a letter to the national organization protesting the firing.

"I consider her the godmother of the local immigrant community," said Richard Shaw, the head of the local AFL-CIO and one of numerous local leaders who have signed letters asking American Friends to hire Jimenez back. "There is not one single immigrant organization I deal with who does not hold her in the highest regard."

About 50 people, some holding candles, attended the vigil in front of the American Friends office on Navigation in the East End. They heard brief speeches from 15 representatives of Hispanic-rights organizations and other groups, including Mayor Lee Brown's office and labor unions. Posters displayed clippings from various publications highlighting some of Jimenez's accomplishments.

Two dozen people mingled outside and inside the small house afterward, discussing future action.

"In the following days, we hope to get a positive response to our demands," said Fernando Garcia, the leader of the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights.

Neither Jimenez nor representatives of the American Friends Service Committee could be reached for comment Tuesday. A receptionist at the American Friends headquarters in Philadelphia said that office was essentially closed because of snow.

But supporters said they believe Jimenez was fired for her vociferous protests of the decision to close the Houston Friends office.

Active since her days as a student at the University of Houston, Jimenez made one run for office -- she ran unsuccessfully against Ben Reyes for a seat in the Legislature -- but then turned to work on behalf of mostly illegal immigrants in Houston and along the border.

She ran the American Friends office in Houston, which became a training center for emerging activists. Cristobal Hinojosa, with Mexicans in Action, and Benito Juarez, the mayor's coordinator on immigrant issues, both worked under Jimenez in the cramped and dark office in an old house on Navigation.

"Under her umbrella, a number of groups grew up," said Garcia, who gives credit to Jimenez's guidance for his own activism.

Jimenez traveled to the border and to Washington frequently, working as the head of the American Friends' Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project. In October, she announced she was moving to Philadelphia to run a new American Friends program, known as Project VOICE, to empower and unify immigrants across the country.

After she left, American Friends apparently decided to close the Houston office.

Deeply ideological -- she named her son "Carlos" after Karl Marx and her daughter "Stalina" after Josef Stalin -- Jimenez can also be difficult, according to her friends and detractors. But friends see that quality as an asset in her work to speak out for those who have no political voice of their own.

"Maria is a leader," Shaw said. "That means she is strong-willed."

Chronicle reporter Lucas Wall contributed to this story.


 Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

  Feb. 27, 2003, 12:36AM

Union leader bitter after visit by Chao

Bush appointee called anti-labor

Knight-Ridder Tribune News

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. -- Normally a courtesy visit by a secretary of labor to the AFL-CIO annual winter meetings might provide little drama.

But when the Bush administration's Elaine Chao spoke before the AFL-CIO executive council meetings Wednesday, she provoked a bitter outburst from AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

Calling Chao's 30-minute private meeting with the executive council "pretty unbelievable," Sweeney told reporters. "She was angry at points. She was insulting at points. In all my years, I have never seen a secretary of labor who's so anti-labor."

For her part, Chao said the meeting had been frank and open. "We want to work with those who want to work with us," she said.

Sweeney didn't go into detail about what he found objectionable in Chao's remarks, and an AFL-CIO spokeswoman, speaking earlier, had described Chao's appearance as cordial but said her remarks were met with "a fair amount of dismay" among union leaders.

Given the animosity between the pro-Democratic AFL-CIO and the Republican Bush administration, it might not have taken much to spark a disagreement. Union leaders had been verbally beating up on President Bush all week, even before Chao's appearance.

Union leaders object to:

Bush's plan to impose stringent new financial disclosure requirements on unions.

A plan to allow companies to use compensatory time instead of having to pay workers overtime.

The withdrawal of union protections from federal workers in the new Homeland Security Department.

Bush questioning the patriotism of union leaders who object to some of the new security-related restrictions on workers.

  March 3, 2003, 8:08PM


Top HISD administrators also should bear the brunt

Largely because the Legislature will not provide all Texas children with a decent education, the Houston Independent School District must cut more than $100 million from its budget next year. Egged on by Gov. Rick Perry, legislative leaders appear to be trying to balance the state's multibillion-dollar budget shortfall on the backs of children and the poor, but HISD should make its cuts evenly across the board.

The state provides only 18 percent of HISD's budget of more than $1.3 billion. In 2004, the state's portion will drop to an unconscionable 12.4 percent. Local taxpayers will make up much of the difference, but glitches in the state funding formula and increases in health and property insurance rates force HISD to cut $154 million from its budget.

The decentralized district is correct to let each school principal decide what cuts to make on each campus. The aim is to spare classroom teachers and students as much as possible from the budget knife.

At risk, however, are necessary maintenance, repairs and special programs such as tutoring for the district's most disadvantaged students. The district's popular and successful magnet schools are required to cut 20 percent from their budgets, which cannot help but erode their excellence.

The central administration is cutting 332 positions through attrition, separation inducements and layoffs. Most of these are low-salaried employees such as receptionists, police officers and painters. Once again, maintenance appears to be taking a heavy hit, while the reduction in the district's police force does not square with HISD's stated goal of keeping schools safe.

According to the Houston Federation of Teachers, HISD employs 44 administrators who make more than $100,000 a year, and nearly 500 who make more than $60,000 -- far more than the typical teacher. To be fair in a district where many children are truant because they lack shoes or clean clothes, the administration should subject its best-paid cadre to potential cuts and layoffs.

State government is shaving its support for the schools at the same time it is imposing higher standards through the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. However, state government's habit of ignoring what Gov. Perry describes as its foremost responsibility -- public education -- cannot excuse HISD's hesitancy to realize economies at the top as well as the bottom.