An attempt by the Commonwealth Club to host a forum in San Jose, Calif., featuring representatives of the Minuteman vigilante border patrol has met with a firestorm of protest from area community and immigrant rights leaders, forcing organizers to cancel the event. Fueling the controversy was the scheduling of the program for the city’s Mexican Heritage Plaza on Sept. 16 — Mexican Independence Day.

The forum was to feature Minuteman leader Chris Simcox and member Michael DeLeon, as well as Hans Johnson of the Public Policy Institute of California and Art Torres, chair of the California Democratic Party.

Earlier this month community leaders met with the plaza’s executive director, Marcela Davison Aviles, to voice their opposition to the program.

One participant in that meeting was Martha Campos, a program director at the San Jose-based Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network. In a telephone interview, Campos said that when community leaders learned the Minutemen were slated for the Sept. 16 program, “most of us were shocked, especially at the date and location. We checked into it, and when we found it was true, we rejected it as an insult. It is a pain to our heart to open our home to an enemy.”

Campos said she and other Latino community leaders want a constructive dialogue on immigration issues, and insist that immigrants be treated with respect. She noted the absence from the Commonwealth Club’s panel of immigrants, immigrant rights advocates or legal experts on the civil rights implications of the Minuteman project.

“We don’t want violence, we live in the spirit of Cesar Chavez,” Campos said, referring to the Minutemen’s threats and armed vigilante activity at the U.S.-Mexico border. When anyone picks up a gun,” she added, “violence leads to violence. The Minutemen are a provocation.”

Campos called for recognition of the tremendous economic and social contributions made by immigrants, and urged legalization for those who are undocumented.

Community activist Carlos Avitia said, “We told them they were legitimizing the Minutemen, but the Minutemen are like the Ku Klux Klan.” Avitia said he and others are building a coalition to address the civil rights challenges to immigrants since the 9/11 events.

Leaders of the Commonwealth Club and administrators of the Mexican Heritage Plaza told the San Jose Mercury News the program was not meant to imply endorsement of the Minutemen, but to open a public dialogue. The Commonwealth Club said the program would be rescheduled in San Francisco.