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STS-128 Mission Specialist José Hernández, a former migrant farm worker who as a boy toiled with his parents in the California vegetable fields, was part of the 13-day space shuttle Discovery mission in late August that delivered a new crew member and 33,000 pounds of equipment to the International Space Station. Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, who on Wednesday, September 16, participated in a press conference in Edinburg promoting issues to protect children who are farm workers, praised Hernández as a role model for all Americans. “Like many of us, Mission Specialist José Hernández came from humble beginnings,” Martínez said. “He tells everyone that if he could do this, anyone can achieve their dream – just stay in school, work hard, and never give up.” Hernández was also part of the first shuttle crew which included two Mexican Americans. Astronaut Danny Olivas, born and raised in El Paso, joined Hernández during the shuttle mission, which featured seven astronauts.

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Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, featured right, and Carlos Gutiérrez, legislative assistant for Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen featured second from right, on Wednesday, September 16, participated in a press conference in Edinburg to announce local support for the passage of federal legislation designed to help protect children who are farm workers. The 3 p.m. event, held in the 3rd floor of the Wells Fargo Building, represented the national campaign kick-off for The Children in the Fields campaign, which is a project of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP). AFOP is the national federation of non-profit and public agencies that provide job training and services for America’s farmworkers. For more information, please visit http://www.afop.org. See story on The Children in the Fields campaign later in this posting.

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Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, has been honored by CASA of Nueces County, a nonprofit corporation whose volunteer members speak out during legal hearings on behalf of abused and neglected foster children. CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. Those advocates speak out in court representing the sole interest of the child. CASA of Nueces County is one of more than 60 local programs in Texas. Their goals focus on placing these children in safe, nurturing environments as quickly as possible. CASA of the Coastal Bend serves Nueces, San Patricio and Aransas counties. Hinojosa was recognized for his role in budgeting state money – about $7 million, according to CASA officials – during last spring’s regular session of the Texas Legislature to recruit and train more volunteers. Featured, seated, from left: Diana Booth; Vicki Hale; Sandra Strub; Noe Ortiz; and Drusilla Knight. Standing, from left: Mary Breen; Samanth Koepp; Anne Carelton; Don Melampy; Belinda Villarreal; Kathy Coker; Andrea Sparks; Sen. Hinojosa; Page Hall; Elia Gutiérrez; René Ramírez. See story later in this posting.

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Cynthia Bocanegra, featured left, and Lee Castro, center, will be recognized by the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce on Saturday, October 8, for their leadership roles on behalf of the local group. At the local chamber’s upcoming annual banquet, Lee Castro will be honored as outgoing chairman of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce and Cynthia Bocanegra will be welcomed as the incoming chairwoman. The banquet also will represent the first time that the local chamber announces its Man and Woman of the Year, Fireman of the Year, Edinburg’s City Employee of the Year, and Elementary and Secondary Teacher of the Year. The price to attend the banquet is $40 per person or $500 per table, and the fee will include dinner and entertainment. Featured, from left: Cynthia Bocanegra; Lee Castro; and Letty González, president of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce. See story later in this posting.

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The City of McAllen has proclaimed September as Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month. Over the last 20 years, National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month has inspired millions of people to raise awareness about addiction, share their stories of recovery, and assist others who are still struggling. Palmer Drug Abuse Program will be opening its doors at 115 N. 9th Street in McAllen to the general public on Friday, September 25, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Area residents who, are or have someone close to them, struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, or have lost someone to addiction, are welcomed to PDAP’s open house on Friday to honor and celebrate their strength while on their journey to sobriety. For more information on how to celebrate Recovery Month or need further information on the programs that Palmer Drug Abuse Program has, please, call (956) 687-7714. Featured, displaying the proclamation, are, from left: Fito Mercado, PDAP program director; Myssie Cárdenas-Barajas, PDAP executive director; Pam Watson, PDAP financial manager; and Amanda Quintanilla, PDAP “Special People” counselor.

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Rep. Flores wants AG opinion on whether tax freezes also protect homeowners with cancer, diabetes

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores, D-Palmview, wants to know if a recent landmark change to the national Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which went into effect on January 1, 2009, also means that several new groups of Texas homeowners – including persons with cancer and diabetes – now qualify for an assortment of property tax freezes on their home.

The property tax freezes are not tax exemptions; property taxes are still paid, but the freezes prevent those taxes, under most circumstances for qualified homeowners, from ever increasing.

Flores contends the federal government’s expansion of the definition of a disability means that those additional groups of homeowners should qualify for the property tax freeze as well.

“In 2003, by an overwhelming majority, the people of Texas voted for two state constitutional amendments to provide property tax freezes to elderly and disabled homeowners, who have to deal with extraordinary financial medical expenses,” said Flores. “Congress now says that people who suffer from cancer and diabetes, among several other major illnesses, are considered disabled. As a result, I believe they, too, should be eligible for the the state-authorized property tax freezes.”

In light of that change by the federal government in its definition of a disability – and with home property tax bills set to go out statewide in Texas in a matter of weeks – Flores wants the state’s top legal lawyer to issue an Attorney General’s Opinion regarding whether homeowners with those serious illnesses also qualify for the various home property tax freezes.

An Attorney General’s Opinion, which would be issued by Attorney General Gregg Abbott, is a legal interpretation of existing state law, usually requested to clear up any confusion.

The South Texas lawmaker’s call for action comes following the September 2008 congressional passage of The Amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act 2008, signed into law by then-President Bush.

That federal law went into effect on January 1, 2009.

The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 has expanded the definition of a disability to include persons with diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and other illnesses that can be controlled by medications and other treatments, according to federal lawmakers and published reports of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008.

State voters in 2003 approved original tax freezes

As a result of two constitutional amendments in 2003 – Proposition 13 and Proposition 17 – the property tax freezes means that for qualified elderly or disabled homeowners, several property taxes they pay on their principal residence will never increase as long as they own and live in the home.

Proposition 17 required school districts to provide the property tax freeze to qualified disabled homeowners.

Proposition 13 allows community colleges, county governments, and city governments to provide the property tax freeze for qualified elderly (aged 65 years and older) and disabled homeowners.

The property tax freezes apply to only one home per owner.

Statewide, at least a dozen community college systems, more than 60 counties, and more than 100 cities have approved their respective property tax freezes for elderly and disabled homeowners – not including the groups added by Congress to the expanded federal definition of the ADA – according to the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature, an advocacy group for older Texans.

In South Texas, the cities of Edinburg, McAllen, Hidalgo County, and South Texas College have adopted the property tax freeze on the residential homesteads of disabled and elderly homeowners – not including the groups added by Congress in the expanded federal definition of the ADA.

That list of local governments in Texas which offer the property tax freeze for disabled homeowners is available online at http://www.txshl.org/taxfreeze.cfm

Under both approved propositions, those taxes can increase only in certain circumstances, such as if the qualified homeowner makes additions to the structure, such as adding more rooms or building a swimming pool. But in general, the tax freezes are designed to keep a lid on rising property taxes because those two groups are often faced with huge medical expenses and reduced income potential relating to their age or physical disability.

Houston lawmaker Thompson to request AG opinion

A request for an AG Opinion can only come through a select list of elected leaders, such as a chair of a House or Senate committee in the Texas Legislature, so Flores is seeking Abbott’s ruling on the issue through one of his many strong allies at the Capitol: Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, who is chair of the House Local and Consent Calendars Committee, and is also former longtime chair of the House Judicial Affairs Committee.

Thompson, one of the longest-serving members in the Texas Legislature, has agreed to request the Attorney General’s Opinion.

Texas homeowners have to apply for the property tax freeze with the local appraisal district, and the application requires medical documentation, including a letter from a physician, to help provide proof they meet the disability requirements.

Other requirements to qualify for the property tax freeze based on a disability include the homeowner must have been under a disability for the purposes of payment of disability insurance benefits under the Federal Old Age, Survivor’s and Disability Insurance Act OR must meet the definition of disabled in that act. The homeowner also must produce a letter from the Social Security Administration or their physician stating that effective date of disability. This letter must be no older than six months.

The ADA Amendments Act of 2008

On September 25, 2008, following a public ceremony where President Bush signed into law, the measure’s main author, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, explained the need by the federal government to expand the definition of a disability.

According to an announcement released by Harkin following the bill’s signing:

“The day, 18 years ago, when President Bush’s father signed the original Americans with Disabilities Act into law was the proudest day of my Senate career. But this day comes close, because this new law overturns Supreme Court decisions that have taken away the rights of people with disabilities, and restores the original promise and protections of the ADA.

“I think of my brother Frank, who was deaf, and who suffered terrible discrimination and exclusion, and I think of millions of other Americans with disabilities who face similar obstacles.

As chief Senate sponsor of both the original ADA and this new ADA restoration act, I am deeply gratified that we could work in a bipartisan fashion to ensure that all Americans have the right to equal opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency.”

Since the ADA became law in 1990, a series of court decisions narrowed the category of who qualifies as an “individual with a disability,” contrary to Congressional intent. By raising the threshold for an impairment to qualify as a disability, these court decisions have deprived individuals of the discrimination protections Congress intended to provide. The ADA Amendments Act would remedy this problem and restore workplace protections to every American with a disability.”

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Edinburg barely avoids fourth monthly jump in unemployment with 7.7 percent rate in August

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Edinburg posted a 7.7 percent unemployment rate in August 2009, the second worst showing in more than four and a half years, according to the Texas Workforce Commission, which released its latest report on the state’s economy on Friday, September 18.

The unemployment rate is a key indicator of the strength of the local economy.

Just a month earlier, Edinburg reported a 7.8 percent unemployment rate in July 2009, the highest level in recent history, and higher than in June 2009, which was then the worst showing for the three-time All-America City since January 2005.

The state’s unemployment rate for August 2009 reached at 22-year high, coming in at eight percent.

The U.S. unemployment rate for August 2009 was 9.7 percent.

The latest figures for Edinburg and all other cities only go back to 2005, according to the Texas Workforce Commission, because of substantial methodology changes between 2004 and 2005 in estimating city unemployment statistics, Texas city data is not available prior to 2005.

Because of substantial methodology changes in geographic areas below the state level, data from 2005 and 2004 or earlier is not considered comparable, the state agency notes.

A reported 2,447 Edinburg residents who were willing and able to work in August 2009 had no luck finding a job, according to the state agency.

The August 2009 unemployment rate was one-tenth of a percent better than in July 2009.

The year before, in August 2008, the city’s unemployment rate stood at 5.5 percent, when there were 1,652 residents jobless but looking for work, according to the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, which is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

In July 2009, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 7.8 percent.

In June 2009, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 7.4 percent.

In May 2009, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was six percent.

The higher figures come less than two years after Edinburg has its best showing in the city’s history.

In November 2007, only 3.7 percent of Edinburg’s civilian labor force was unable to find work, according to the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, which is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

According to TWC:

  • The unemployment rate is the number of persons unemployed, expressed as a percentage of the civilian labor force;
  • The civilian labor force is that portion of the population age 16 and older employed or unemployed; and
  • To be considered unemployed, a person has to be not working but willing and able to work and actively seeking work.

All major cities in the Valley saw very slight improvements in their unemployment rates for August 2009, with McAllen reporting the lowest figure – 7.3 percent – while four cities continuing to suffer with unemployment rates in double-digits.

The unemployment rate for all urban and rural areas in Hidalgo County reached 11.4 percent in August 2009, up from, down from 11.6 percent in July 2009, and also better than the June 2009 showing of 11.1 percent.

Cameron County had a better countywide average than Hidalgo County, but it was still in the double-digit realm, with all urban and rural areas in Cameron County averaging a 10.5 percent unemployment rate in August 2009, compared with a 10.7 percent unemployment rate for July 2009.

Brownsville, the largest city in the Rio Grande Valley, in August 2009 posted a 10.9 percent unemployment rate, up from 10.8 percent in July 2009.

A breakdown of the major cities in the Rio Grande Valley shows that they posted the following unemployment rates in August 2009:

  • McAllen – 7.3 percent (7.5 percent in July 2009)
  • Edinburg –7.7 (7.8 percent in July)
  • Harlingen – 9 (8.8 percent in July)
  • Pharr – 9.6 (9.4 percent in July)
  • Mission – 9.7 (9.6 percent in July)
  • San Benito – 10.2 (9.5 percent in July)
  • Weslaco – 10.6 (10.7 percent in July)
  • Brownsville – 10.9 (10.8 percent in July)
  • San Juan – 12 (12 percent in July)

Highlights of key figures for Edinburg include:

Unemployment rate, by month

  • August 2009: 7.7 percent
  • August 2008: 5.5
  • August 2007: 5.1
  • August 2006: 5.9
  • August 2005: 5.1

Unemployment rate, by year

  • 2008: 5.0 percent
  • 2007: 4.8
  • 2006: 5.3
  • 2005: 4.9

People looking for work, by month

  • August 2009: 2,447
  • August 2008: 1,652
  • August 2007: 1,483
  • August 2006: 1,660
  • August 2005: 1,356

Average of number of people looking for work, by year

  • August 2008: 1,520
  • August 2007: 1,417
  • August 2006: 1,502
  • August 2005: 1,324

Employed, by month

  • August 2009: 29,425
  • August 2008: 28,611
  • August 2007: 27,803
  • August 2006: 26,331
  • August 2005: 25,322

Average of number employed, by year

  • 2008: 28,971
  • 2007: 28,207
  • 2006: 26,865
  • 2005: 25,538

The Texas Workforce Commission maintains a detailed accounting of employment trends for Edinburg and all other cities in the state on its website, located at:

http://www.tracer2.com/cgi/dataanalysis/AreaSelection.asp?tableName=Labforce

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Sen. Hinojosa honored by CASA of Nueces County for championing efforts to protect children in court

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, has been honored by CASA of Nueces County, a nonprofit corporation whose volunteer members speak out during legal hearings on behalf of abused and neglected foster children.

CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. Those advocates speak out in court representing the sole interest of the child. CASA of Nueces County is one of more than 60 local programs in Texas. Their goals focus on placing these children in safe, nurturing environments as quickly as possible.

CASA of the Coastal Bend serves Nueces, San Patricio and Aransas counties.

Hinojosa was recognized for his role in budgeting state money – about $7 million, according to CASA officials – during last spring’s regular session of the Texas Legislature to recruit and train more volunteers.

Hinojosa serves as vice-chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which writes the Senate’s version of the state’s two year operating budget.

“Having a champion for Texas children like Sen. Hinojosa, along with his staff, made this a great session, not only for foster children and the CASA volunteers that advocate for them, but for all children in Texas,” said Joe Gagen, chief executive officer for the CASA. “We are honored to have him as a friend.”

In 2008, there were more than 2,000 confirmed victims of child abuse in the Nueces County alone, with half of those children entering the foster care system, added Hall. Statewide, about half of all foster children have a CASA volunteer advocate on their behalf in court.

“In Nueces County, volunteers represent a third of the children in foster care,” added Page Hall, executive director for CASA of the Coastal Bend. “That is why we need more volunteers.”

Hinojosa was honored on Tuesday, September 15, with a reception and presentation of a new CASA license plate at the organization’s regional headquarters in Corpus Christi.

According to the organization’s web site:

CASA is a national volunteer movement that began more than 25 years ago, when Judge David Soukup in Seattle decided he needed to know more about the children whose lives were in his hands. His solution was to ask community volunteers to act as a “voice in court” for abused and neglected children. These Court Appointed Special Advocates™ (CASA) provided him with the detailed information he needed to safeguard the children’s best interests and ensure that they were placed in safe, permanent homes as quickly as possible. The program was so successful that it was copied around the nation.

The first CASA program established in Texas was Dallas CASA in 1980. During that decade, 14 CASA programs were started in Texas. In 1989, Texas CASA was formed as a result of a merger between the Texas Task Force on Permanency Planning and the Texas CASA network that was made up of the existing CASA programs in the state.

Today, the CASA movement has evolved into one of the largest volunteer organizations in the country. In Texas, there are 68 local CASA programs with more than 5,000 volunteers serving 20,509 foster children.

Texas CASA, Inc. advocates for abused and neglected children in the court system through the development, growth and support of local CASA programs in Texas.

CASA of Nueces County, Inc. is a non profit 501 (C) (3) organization of trained, court appointed volunteers. CASA serves children in Nueces, San Patricio and Aransas Counties Foster Care.

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Congressman Hinojosa pushing for changes in federal policies to prevent exploitation of child farm workers

By MATTHEW SHEAFF

As federal legislation to protect child farmworkers was introduced in Washington, DC, elected officials, advocates, and farm workers in Edinburg joined together to launch the Children in the Fields campaign and show their support for the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE Act).

The CARE act works to end the double standard existing in child labor laws that results in inadequate protections for children working in the nation’s agricultural fields.

“It is unacceptable that children who work in agriculture, one of this country’s most dangerous occupations, are less protected under U.S. law than juveniles working in other occupations,” said Congresswoman Roybal-Allard, D-California, the author of the bill. “The CARE bill addresses this inequity by raising labor standards and protections for farmworker children to the same level set for children in occupations outside of agriculture.”

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, is also pushing for the measure.

“This is important legislation that will look out for the best interest of our most vulnerable children,” Hinojosa said. “The bill will strengthen our nation’s child labor laws and ensure that no child suffers from cruel labor practices.”

While retaining current exemptions for family farms, the CARE Act brings the age and work hour standards for children working in agriculture up to the standards set for all other forms of child labor. Under the measure, teenagers would need to be at least 16 years of age to work in agricultural fields and at least 18 years of age to perform particularly hazardous work.

The bill will also permit 14 and 15 year olds to work in certain agriculture jobs, during limited shifts and outside of school hours. The measure also provides farmworker children with greater protections against pesticide exposure in the fields.

“For far too long, our nation’s child labor laws have failed to properly protect America’s most vulnerable children,” said David Strauss, Executive Director of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs and a member of the Child Labor Coalition.

Straus noted that for decades, “children, some as young as eight years old, have labored in the fields using sharp tools and toiling amongst dangerous pesticides. I have seen firsthand how these unfair conditions have affected these children.”

Provisions of the CARE Act:

  • Amends the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) by bringing the age and work hours standards for children working in agriculture up to the standards set under FLSA for all other forms of child labor.
  • Preserves the FLSA’s family farm exemption. Under the CARE Act, farmers’ children of any age would continue to be able to work for their parents on their own farms.
  • Increases the civil monetary penalties for child labor violations from $11,000 to $15,000, with a minimum penalty of $500, and higher fines for repeat or willful violations. It also increases criminal penalties to a maximum of five years imprisonment.
  • Requires greater data collection from the Department of Labor on the industries in which minors are employed (specifically agriculture), a record of the types of violations found, and an annual report on child labor in the U.S. It also requires employer reporting of serious work-related injuries or illnesses of minors.
  • Strengthens provisions for pesticide exposure in agriculture to take into account additional risks posed to children. Requires the Worker Protection Standard for pesticides be included in the hazardous orders for minors by the Secretary of Labor.

The Children in the Fields campaign is a project of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP). AFOP is the national federation of non-profit and public agencies that provide job training and services for America’s farmworkers. For more information, please visit http://www.afop.org. For more information or for further comment, please contact Matthew Sheaff (202) 828-6006.

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Father, son sentenced by feds to 30 years stemming from $1 million drug money drop-off in Edinburg

Hugo Alberto Díaz, Jr., 30, and his father, Hugo Alfredo Díaz, 55, both of Montclair, California, have each been sentenced to 30 years in prison for their roles in a conspiracy to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine, United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced on Wednesday, September 16. During the hearing, United States District Judge Randy Crane noted the son was an organizer of the drug organization and more likely than not recruited his father into the activity.

Following a three-day jury trial in November 2007, both men were convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute in excess of five kilograms of cocaine as well as possession with intent to distribute in excess of five kilograms of cocaine on or about January 20 and April 19, 2006. Díaz Sr. was additionally convicted and charged with one count of conspiracy to launder money in regard to the distribution of cocaine.

In April 2005, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), along with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), initiated an investigation into the activity of the defendants after observing Díaz Sr. aid and abet the transportation of approximately one million dollars from Atlanta, Georgia, to Edinburg. After observing the delivery of the money, agents were lead to a stash house connected to the drug organization associated with the defendants and seized an additional $3,801,554. The tractor-trailer used to move the currency belonged to Díaz Jr.

For the next three years, DPS and DEA investigated the drug organization for which the defendants worked. During that investigation, it was discovered that Díaz Jr. would transport large amounts of cocaine in his tractor-trailer to places such as North Carolina from 2003 to 2007. Díaz Sr. also moved the cocaine north and helped coordinate the return of drug proceeds to South Texas and Mexico. Specifically, evidence was presented that Díaz Sr. hired a tractor-trailer driver to transport cocaine and connected him with another co-conspirator to transport approximately 200 kilograms of cocaine from South Texas to North Carolina. Upon completion of the trip, the driver met with Díaz Jr. to discuss payment for the delivery of the cocaine. At this time, Díaz Jr. informed the driver he needed to go to Mexico to meet with Díaz Sr. and their boss in Mexico to discuss payment. Additionally, DEA and DPS were able to observe Díaz Jr., along with a driver he hired, coordinate the picking-up of 128 kilograms of cocaine for delivery north. The driver, by himself, picked up the cocaine and was subsequently stopped by DPS.

A ledger seized from a stash house connected to the drug organization was produced during trial which showed that besides the loads discussed above, Díaz Jr. moved in excess of 500 kilograms of cocaine and Díaz Sr. moved in excess of 600 kilograms of cocaine. The government also presented evidence that Díaz Jr. had been arrested as early as April 2003, in Hoover, Alabama, with $500,000 in the tractor-trailer he was driving. At that time, he claimed no knowledge of the money. In August 2003, Díaz Sr. was actually convicted of money laundering by the State of Mississippi for being caught with a large of amount of currency in the tractor-trailer he was driving at that time. Thus, the government presented evidence establishing that both father and son were moving drugs and money since 2003.

Both were originally indicted on the drug charges by a McAllen Grand Jury on February 27, 2007. A superseding indictment was handed down on May 20, 2008, which added an additional money laundering count against the father.

Díaz Jr. was originally arrested on September 6, 2007, in California and Díaz Sr. was arrested on May 1, 2008, in Bell County, Texas. Judge Crane sentenced Díaz Jr. to 30 years for the counts of conviction, a five-year-term of supervised release for each count and $100 special assessment for each count. As for Díaz Sr., Crane handed down the same sentence as to the drug counts as his son’s and an additional sentence of 20 years for the money laundering count with a three-year-term of supervised release and $100 special assessment. All sentences are to run concurrently.

This case was investigated by DEA and DPS with the aid of the Hoover, Alabama Police Department. The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Jesse Salazar and Juan F. Alanis.

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Congressman Hinojosa votes for largest funding for college financial aid, including more than $2.5 billion over 10 years for minority-serving institutions

By TENO VILLARREAL

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Thursday, September 17, voted to make the single largest investment in aid to help students and families pay for college in history – and at no cost to taxpayers. The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) (H.R. 3221) will expand access to an affordable college education to more American students, transform early education opportunities, and build a world-class community college system.

The passage of the SAFRA will help build a stronger, more competitive American economy for the future while saving taxpayers money.

“I am proud to support H.R. 3221, a bill that brings much needed relief to our students in a fiscally-responsible way. It represents an historic investment in our education system, from our youngest students to our adult learners,” said Hinojosa.

This bill is a major step forward in President Obama’s initiative to make sure America once again leads the world in college graduates by 2020. SAFRA will reform the system of federal student loans to save the taxpayers $87 billion and will direct $10 billion back to the Treasury to reduce entitlement spending. SAFRA will change the way the student loan system functions by originating new loans through the government’s Direct Loan program, but will maintain competition among private lenders and non-profits to provide top-notch customer service for student borrowers. This simple change will make college loans more reliable for students and families — and ensure that loans operate in the best interests of borrowers by reducing many of the potential conflicts of interest that exist in the current loan system.

H.R. 3221 strengthens the nation’s Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), particularly in the STEM areas, so that students can stay in school, graduate and succeed in our global economy. It does this by investing $2.55 billion dollars in our nation’s Minority-Serving Institutions over a 10-year period. It is estimated that this funding will reach at least 500 institutions of higher learning.

Hinojosa added, “For decades, Minority-Serving Institutions have provided educational opportunities for hundreds of thousands of minority, low-income, and first-generation college students due to their accessibility, affordability, and close proximity to the communities they serve. These investments will create a new generation of minority workers in STEM fields—professionals that our country desperately needs to remain competitive in the world.”

With the largest-ever investment in higher education, this bill will also significantly increase government grant and loan assistance for college tuition payments. Pell Grants, already distributed to more than 7 million students, will increase to $6,900 by 2019 from $5,350 today. SAFRA also keeps interest rates low on government-subsidized loans, makes substantial investments in early childhood education, expands the Perkins low-cost loan program to every U.S. college, and simplifies the process of applying for student financial aid.

“This legislation is fiscally responsible and helps reduce the deficit. it complies with Pay-As-You Go and directs $8 billion in savings back to the U.S. Treasury to help pay down the deficit. Our competitiveness and innovation in the world depends on our ability to invest in human capital and train a workforce with 21st century skills,” said Hinojosa. “H.R. 3221 is a landmark investment in higher education that will strengthen our economy and provide all of our citizens with the 21st century skills needed for success. “

The bill now goes to the Senate for its consideration.

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Federal legislation includes $46.6 million for Hidalgo County public schools, says Congressman Cuellar

By ASHLEY PATTERSON

Almost $47 million in federal funding has been earmarked to help repair public schools in Hidalgo County, Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, announced on Thursday, September 17.

The new federal money was included in a major measure approved by the House of Representatives: The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, H.R. 3321, which reforms the federal student loan system.

Cuellar voted for The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act. It now awaits action by the Senate.

H.R. 3321 includes appropriations requests that are part of the 21st Century Green High-Performing Public School Facilities Act, which passed the U.S. House this May. Incorporated into H.R 3321, the 21st Century School Facilities Act makes critical investments to modernize, upgrade and repair school facilities nationwide. It authorizes $529 million in new funding for Texas schools, which includes $46.6 million for school districts within Hidalgo County.

Research shows that enhancements to teaching facilities yields improved student achievement and better teacher recruitment and retention. Beginning in 2010, this funding can be used towards modernization renovations which make schools safer, healthier and more energy efficient.

As part of this modernization act, Cuellar also included a provision which sets aside approximately $320 million for areas recovering from natural disasters or severe economic distress. As Chairman of the House Homeland Security Emergency Communications Preparedness and Response Subcommittee, Cuellar believes it’s crucial for a region to rebuild their schools as part of the recovery process from a natural disaster.

“In many ways, our schools are the cornerstone to creating stability in the wake of a natural disaster and in our everyday lives,” said Cuellar. “It can’t be overstated; the net benefit of this bill is immeasurable.”

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Union disputes Edinburg school district video portraying two bus drivers in negative fashion

By CAMILO GARZA

Everyone can agree that the safety of our children must always be a priority and at the forefront of any educational facility or institution. However, this implies all that is necessary to carry this out, from management, to equipment, to providing a safe environment for students, and workers.

It’s time to hold management and administrators responsible for the hazardous conditions at Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District that create a danger to our children, despite the fact that concerned bus drivers have brought these issues to their attention.

The following are all management issues at the ECISD Transportation Department:

  • Understaffing/ short staffing;
  • Unequal distribution of work hours/favoritism;
  • “Double ups” – two routes expected to be completed in the time of one despite the safety hazards that arise, such as speeding, overcrowding of buses that causes children to have to stand on a moving bus, and long wait time for children at their schools;
  • Limited training given to bus drivers by the ECISD puts our children in jeopardy by creating a situation where a driver, who may be unqualified to perform a certain duty, is forced to complete it or suffer disciplinary action. This includes performing the duties of monitor, or driving a bus with special needs students; and
  • Inadequate/ faulty equipment that bus drivers are expected to perform with, creates a hazard that the ECISD has neglected to address, putting our children in substandard and unsafe vehicles.

ECISD released footage of two bus drivers “violating policies” on video, (some of the “violated policies” are not policies at all) to the press recently as a response to claims of retaliation. However, this sensationalized report failed to mention key circumstances that invalidate ECISD’s position on the issue.

A hostile work environment continues to exist at the ECISD Transportation Department.

The footage from the report erroneously labels a school district employee as a bus monitor, and shows a route that he is unfamiliar with and has never done because he is a bus driver that did not receive training by the district to monitor the children shown. That employee also did not have the option of declining the task of monitoring that route that day. Also, policy does not prohibit monitors from cell phone use.

The absence of a break room for the 160 bus drivers in ECISD is what caused those two bus drivers in the ECISD video to seek shelter from the extremely hot South Texas sun in their air conditioned bus during time still allotted to them for their route by their department.

Both bus drivers, though accused of “milking the clock”, are not able to make enough hours per week (40) to be considered full time employees by the district and are denied unemployment benefits during the summer.

The violations could have easily resulted in a written reprimand or verbal warning (both of which were neglected) since both drivers have had outstanding evaluations in the past. The fact that this resulted in immediate termination to instill fear in the bus drivers at ECISD shows a clear motive for the severely unnecessary disciplinary action taken against these two bus drivers; retaliation against all workers who participate in the denouncing safety hazards and a hostile and dangerous environment at ECISD that puts our children in danger.

Camilo Garza is a union labor organizer from the Southwest Worker’s Union.

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South Texas College fall 2009 enrollment surges to more than 27,000, up 23 percent over fall 2008 level

By HELEN J. ESCOBAR

South Texas College’s fall 2009 enrollment hit a record 27,132 students, a 23 percent increase over the college’s fall 2008 enrollment. The greatest increase is in first-time in college students with an increase of 3,494 students, or a 23.2 percent increase.

“We are focusing all our energy and commitment toward the success of these 27,132 heroic students who have chosen STC as the path to a quality life for themselves and their families,” said Dr. Shirley A. Reed, STC president. “We are doing this with quality, high academic standards, and a passion for the success of every student. We are preparing the workforce to address the demands of a highly-competitive, global economy.”

Students continue to seek education and training at the college in high-demand, good paying careers. Majors in nursing and allied health programs, education, child care development, business computer systems, criminal justice, and biology had the largest increases.

In addition to its overall enrollment gains, the college sees big increases over fall 2008 enrollment at all of it campuses, including a 24.5 percent increase at its Pecan Campus in McAllen, a 29.2 percent increase at its Mid-Valley Campus in Weslaco, and a 26.7 percent increase at its Starr County Campus in Rio Grande City. STC’s Nursing and Allied Health Campus and Technology Campus see increases of 14.5 percent and 7.8 percent respectively.

For more information about South Texas College call 956-872-8311 or visit:

http://www.southtexascollege.edu.

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Veterans Administration provides progress report on 120,000 square foot outpatient clinic in Harlingen

By FROY GARZA

The construction of the newest addition to the VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System’s fleet of health care facilities is making progress. The Ambulatory Surgery and Specialty Outpatient Clinic in Harlingen, which broke ground on April 6, is well underway.

The steel framework has just been installed, giving a glimpse of the total size of the facility.

“This 120,000 square foot facility is a critical component in our effort to provide additional specialized care to South Texas Veterans here in our communities” said Jeff Milligan, Director of the VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System (VATVCBHCS).

The flagship facility will offer a full range of outpatient services including six surgical suites, colonoscopy and cystoscopy suites, medicine and surgery specialty outpatient clinics, prosthetics care, amputee clinic, and a substance abuse treatment clinic.

“As our health care system continues to grow, the need for our facilities to keep up with that growth is crucial. This is a prime example of the VA understanding the need for more specialized care services and in turn providing that avenue of care by way of additional facilities,” said Milligan. ” I am happy to report construction on this new facility is well underway as we continue to see more development week after week. We expect to meet our operational target of January 2011.”

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Lee Castro, Cynthia Bocanegra to be recognized for leadership roles by Edinburg Chamber of Commerce

By EVANA VLECK

The Edinburg Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and staff will host “Havanah Nights” at the chamber’s Annual Installation Banquet, scheduled for Saturday, October 3, 2009 at the Social Steak House and Club located on 205 Conquest Boulevard in Edinburg.

The banquet will honor Lee Castro as outgoing chairman for the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce and welcome Cynthia Bocanegra as the incoming chairwoman.

The event will begin at 6:30 p.m.

The scheduled gathering is one of the chamber’s most notable events of the year and includes dinner, dance, cash bar, live music by Latin Beat, excitement and give-a-ways.

The banquet also will represent the first time that the local chamber announces its Man and Woman of the Year, Fireman of the Year, Edinburg’s City Employee of the Year, and Elementary and Secondary Teacher of the Year.

The price to attend the banquet is $40 per person or $500 per table. Attire will be semi-formal attire. Chamber members and community supporters are encouraged to attend. Master of Ceremonies will be Hidalgo County Commissioner Óscar L. Garza.

“As Chairman for the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce I’d like to send out a personal invitation to the entire community of Edinburg, plus members of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce. It has been my pleasure and a great honor to serve as chairman for 2008-2009,” said Castro. “I’m grateful for having the opportunity to work with such a strong organization with great leaders and exceptional support from chamber staff, Edinburg City Council and mayor.”

Chamber leaders added that they looked forward to bringing forth yet another popular event for the community to partake in offering Edinburg quality of life events, festivals, meetings, coops, fundraisers, and more.

Limited sponsorship opportunities are currently available.

For more information on this event please call Letty González, president of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce at 383-4974 or email chamber@edinburg.com.

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Kiwanis Club of Edinburg to host Clays for Kids Skeet Shoot on Saturday, October 10 to help needy children

By ELVA JACKSON GARZA

Helping Children of the World is the motto of Kiwanis Club International and the Edinburg Kiwanis Club has been doing their part for more than 70 years.

The organization is hosting Clays for Kids Skeet Shoot fundraiser on Saturday, October 10, with registration at 8 a.m. and a shotgun start at 9 a.m. at Trenton and Valverde Road.

The sporting clay tournament will enhance the opportunities of the Kiwanis Club of Edinburg to contribute to several non-profit organizations that benefit children during 2010.

“Our focus over the past few decades is to offer support to groups that offer relief to needy children as well as the special needs of children who have been abused or neglected,” said Robert McGurk, president of the Kiwanis Club of Edinburg. “In addition, we also make a $500 scholarship contribution to each high school in Edinburg.”

The Kiwanis Club of Edinburg has partnered with several businesses in the community to make the event a success and raise the funds they need to operate during the coming year. They are asking for sponsorship support in four categories.

The Top Shot sponsor in the amount of $750 includes one five person team and a Station Sign. The team sponsorship is $500 and the station sign only is $250. Individual shooters are encouraged to register at $125 and they will be assigned to a team.

For more information, area residents may contact McGurk at 648-1981 or Sam de la Garza at 821-0095.

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History of Tejanos to be focus of Museum of South Texas History series beginning September 27

By JOEL GARZA

In 1842, the Texas frontier was truly wild. The United States was pushing westward, but in Texas, few traveled past San Antonio.

Policarpio “Polly” Rodríguez was a young marksman and hunter who helped lead the famous Whiting and Smith expedition to map a route from San Antonio to El Paso in 1849. The expedition would change forever the shape and history of Texas.

Rodríguez’ endeavors are part of the Sunday Series, sponsored by the Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg, which will be held from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, September 27. The discussion of his achievements, which coincides with Tejano History Month, are designed to focus attention on the many contributions of Hispanics to the development of Texas.

Rodríguez was born in present-day Zaragoza, Mexico, and moved with his family to San Antonio in 1840. An expert gunsmith, he was also renowned as a marksman and hunter by the age of 17. Rodríguez served as a Texas Ranger during the Civil War, after which he served two terms as Justice of the Peace and County Commissioner of Bandera County in 1872.

In the late 1870s, Rodríguez experienced an awakening that changed his life and included a conversion from Catholicism to Methodism. In 1882, Rodríguez finished building a beautiful, limestone chapel. Affectionately denoted “Polly’s Chapel,” the sanctuary provided a place for families in the area to worship. The chapel still stands in Bandera, Texas, and is a registered Texas Landmark.

John Hawthorne is currently the Assistant Director for Special Collections and the Arnulfo L. Oliveria Memorial Library at the University of Texas at Brownsville. He earned a bachelor’s in history and a Master of Library and Information Science from The University of Texas at Austin. Hawthorne has written and published several articles and books on South Texas history.

The Sunday Speaker Series program is included with regular museum admission. FRIENDs of the Museum are admitted free as a benefit of FRIENDship. For more information on the program or becoming a FRIEND of the Museum, call 956/383.6911 or visit http://www.mosthistory.org.

The Museum of South Texas History is located on the Courthouse Square in downtown Edinburg.

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Congressman Cuellar recognizes Hispanic Heritage Month, which is in effect through October 15

By ASHLEY PATTERSON

Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, on Tuesday, September 15, recognized the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month, a month-long celebration that lasts through October 15.

Hispanic Heritage Month recognizes the contributions of Hispanic Americans and celebrates Hispanic heritage and culture nationwide.

“This year takes special meaning as we recognize the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month. There is much to celebrate among Hispanics and across minorities nationwide. We’ve seen our country elect President Barack Obama, who in turn nominated Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor,” said Cuellar. “This shows our community is capable, qualified and willing to serve people of all backgrounds.”

Sotomayor is the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice Sotomayor to serve on the nation’s highest court. Also in 2009, the president named former California Congresswoman Hilda Solis as Secretary of the Department of Labor. Obama also appointed former Colorado Senator Ken Salazar to be Secretary of the Interior Department.

Hispanic Heritage Month dates back to September 1968, when Congress authorized President Lyndon B. Johnson to proclaim National Hispanic Heritage Week. In 1998, President Ronald Reagan expanded the weeklong celebration to a month-long observance.

The Hispanic population is the nation’s largest minority group, representing 46 million Americans.

According to U.S. Census reports, it’s estimated that the Hispanic community could represent 30 percent of the nation’s population by 2050. Increasingly, Americans of Hispanic origin are making strides in all aspects of society.

“Texas and the country will continue to be shaped by the contributions of our nation’s Hispanic community. We’re shaping policy, we play a role in the economy and we represent a unique cultural strength,” said Cuellar.

Currently, there are 27 Hispanic Americans serving in Congress, including Cuellar.

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José Luis Cantú, 49, of McAllen, fugitive for 10 years, caught and sentenced to five years in prison

José, Luis Cantú, 49, of McAllen, Texas, a fugitive from justice for 10 years, has been convicted and sentenced to 60 months in prison to be followed by a four-year-term of supervised release for conspiring to distribute more than 100 kilograms of marijuana, United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced on Thursday, September 17.

In August 1998, an indictment was returned in the Southern District of Texas, McAllen Division, charging Cantú and six others with a conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute more than 100 kilograms of marijuana. All other defendants were arrested in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and in West Palm Beach, Florida., except Cantú. All of Cantú’s co-defendants either pleaded guilty or were found guilty after a jury trial in 1999 and were subsequently sentenced to prison for terms ranging from 16 to 70 months.

In March 2009, Cantú was arrested in Fayette County, Texas, on these outstanding federal charges after a routine background check revealed the outstanding federal arrest warrant. In July of this year, Cantú pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana before United States District Judge Randy Crane. Cantú was sentenced late Wednesday, September 16 to 60 months federal custody. Agents with the former United States Customs Service which has since been re-designated Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) preserved the evidence over the years during which Cantú was a fugitive in hopes of bringing the case to a complete conclusion.

Cantú has been held without bond since his arrest and will serve his 60-month sentence in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons.

This case was investigated ICE and prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Terry L. Leonard.

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Sen. Cornyn criticizes U.S. Homeland Security Department for “mismanaging” Secure Border Initiative

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee’s Immigration, Refugees and Border Security subcommittee, on Friday, September 18, issued the following statement regarding a report released by the Government Accountability Office that states the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has fallen seven years behind its goal of putting in place technology and fences to secure the U.S.-Mexico border under the Secure Border Initiative of 2005.

“There are no excuses the Department of Homeland Security could give that would justify its mismanagement of the Secure Border Initiative program. It has been four years since implementation of this program and billions of taxpayer dollars – more than $3.7 billion to be exact – have been expended with nothing truly effective to show for it. As a result our border still is not secure and the American public has every right to question our ability to make it secure in the future in light of the failures and delays in this initiative. The green light was given and the resources have been in place – yet the timelines for completion keep slipping. All the while, violence along our southern border has intensified and the security of residents in Texas and other border states has been in jeopardy. The fact that a fully funded initiative to greatly boost border security through a combination of new technology, infrastructure, and fencing has fallen along the wayside and is now seven years behind schedule is completely unacceptable.

“There have been numerous opportunities through congressional hearings and past reports for DHS to come clean about delays and underperformance. I call on Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to implement a process immediately in which the Secure Border Initiative provides regular updates to both houses of Congress, and members representing Southwest border states, to prevent future idling on such important issues of national security.”

Other points brought up by Cornyn include:

  • With more than $3.7 billion in taxpayer money appropriated for the Secure Border Initiative, American taxpayers expect higher standards and tangible results from their taxpayer dollars at work.
  • DHS should have provided realistic timeframes, anticipated technology glitches, litigation, and potential environmental impacts, before touting any potential successes of program. In addition, DHS should have anticipated the training needs and familiarity with technology and required long-term maintenance for a successful project.
  • Completion of work in Texas sectors on the Secure Border Initiative is likely to be pushed to as late as 2014. This delay does not inspire confidence among the American public on the ability of the federal government to secure our borders if security gaps will still exist.

Cornyn serves on the Finance, Judiciary, Agriculture and Budget Committees. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee’s Immigration, Refugees and Border Security subcommittee. He served previously as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice, and Bexar County District Judge.

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NAHJ urges news media to stop using the term “illegals” when covering immigration

As the heated debates over health care and immigration reform collide, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists calls on the nation’s news media to stop using the dehumanizing term “illegals” as a noun to refer to undocumented immigrants.

NAHJ has long advocated for accurate terminology in news media’s coverage of immigration. NAHJ is concerned with the increasing use of pejorative terms like “illegals” – which is shorthand for “illegal aliens”, another term NAHJ objects to using – to describe the estimated 12 million undocumented people living in the United States.

Using “illegals” in this way is grammatically incorrect and crosses the line by dehumanizing and criminalizing the person, not the action they are purported to have committed. NAHJ calls on the media to never use “illegals” in headlines and in television news crawls.

“We continue to see ‘illegals’ used as a noun seeping from the fringes into the mainstream media, and in turn, into the mainstream political dialogue,” said NAHJ Executive Director Iván Román. “Using these terms not only distorts the debate, but it takes away their identities as individuals and human beings. When journalists do that, it’s that much easier to treat them unfairly and not give them an equal voice in the controversy.”

By incessantly using metaphors like “illegals”, the news media is not only appropriating the rhetoric used by people on a particular side of the issue, but also the implication of something criminal or worthy of suspicion. That helps to predetermine the credibility or respect given to one of the protagonists of this debate, which is not conducive to good journalism and does a disservice to the principles of fairness and neutrality.

In addition, NAHJ has always denounced the use of the degrading terms “alien” and “illegal alien” to describe undocumented immigrants because it casts them as adverse, strange beings, inhuman outsiders who come to the U.S. with questionable motivations. “Aliens” is a bureaucratic term that should be avoided unless used in a quote.

NAHJ prefers using the term “undocumented immigrant” or “undocumented worker” rather than the term “illegal immigrant” which several media outlets have adopted.

NAHJ also calls on editors and journalists to follow generally accepted guidelines regarding race and ethnicity and refrain from reporting a person’s legal status unless it is relevant to the story in question. The public in certain regions of the country have pressured news media to publish the legal status of any Latino who appears in the newspaper or on television, regardless of the story’s subject.

Doing so contributes to the growing trend of profiling Latinos as non-Americans or foreigners and using them as scapegoats for a variety of society’s ills, a tone that has become more pervasive in the public dialogue over the past few years. Few now doubt that this helps create a fertile environment for hate speech which we have seen can lead to discrimination and a growing number of hate crimes in the U.S. against Latinos.

As the U.S. tackles immigration reform in the future, NAHJ believes that responsible, fair, and non-simplistic coverage of this complex issue is in order. The words used can be part of the problem or can contribute to fair coverage and a fruitful public debate.

NAHJ, a 1,500-member organization of reporters, editors and other journalists, addresses the use of these words and phrases by the news media in its Resource Guide for Journalists. For excerpts of some of the relevant entries in the resource guide, click here.

For a copy of NAHJ’s resource guide, visit http://www.nahj.org/resources/research.shtml.

Founded in 1984, NAHJ’s mission is to increase the percentage of Latinos working in our nation’s newsrooms and to improve news coverage of the Latino community. NAHJ is the nation’s largest professional organization for Latino journalists with more than 1,400 members working in English and Spanish-language print, photo, broadcast and online media. NAHJ is a 501 (c)(3).

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