- The Washington Times - Monday, December 26, 2005

CASA of Maryland, the largest and most visible immigrant advocacy group in the state, is moving beyond general assemblies and Capitol Hill to courtrooms and day-laborer centers.

The nonprofit group was created 20 years ago to help Central American refugees flee poverty and war.

It filed a lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of 35 day laborers seeking nearly $300,000 in unpaid wages and damages from MFC General Contractors of Maryland for cleanup work performed after Hurricane Katrina.

“This case really represents a national crisis,” said Steve Smitson, CASA’s legal director. “Advocates at the national level are receiving many phone calls [about] workers who’ve been recruited in one state to the post-Katrina region to do reconstruction.”

CASA filed suit last month against the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration on behalf of 13 immigrants who said the agency denied them driver’s licenses or made the application process difficult.

In its early years, CASA limited its services mostly to providing health and educational assistance and legal resources to immigrants. Their immigration status and inexperience with the U.S. language and laws often keep immigrants away from courts and police and prevent them from seeking information about their rights.

In the past 12 years, CASA has taken on bigger challenges, including day-laborer centers and legal representation for illegal aliens.

“We certainly have more attorneys and resources than we’ve had in the last 12 years [and] we are filing larger claims,” Mr. Smitson said. “We could triple our legal staff tomorrow and still not have enough legal staff to handle all the cases that we see.”

He said the group annually recovers about $250,000 in unpaid wages to day laborers.

CASA receives no direct federal money, but uses grants and taxpayer money from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties to run the day-laborer centers in Silver Spring, Takoma Park and Wheaton.

The group expects to open a center in Langley Park to replace the temporary site in Takoma Park.

Members said they remain involved in local and national immigration issues. CASA has mounted opposition to a bill by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, that could close day-laborer centers because the nonprofit groups running them would have to check the legal status of clients.

Several Maryland lawmakers have opposed local issues for which CASA has campaigned, including using taxpayer money to fund day-laborer centers and issuing driver’s licenses to illegal aliens.

“Their organization does not recognize the federal law,” Delegate Pat McDonough, Baltimore County Republican, said last month in response to CASA’s lawsuit against the MVA. “What CASA is doing flies in the face of the Real ID Act and creates potential harm for the citizens of Maryland.”

Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson, a Democrat, said he supports the day-laborer centers because they prevent loitering problems.

Mr. Smitson said CASA has turned its focus to keeping contractors from exploiting day laborers.

“The day-labor market has exponentially expanded since CASA first began representing day laborers,” he said. “At the same time … the state is not expending resources to protect the workers. Our priority is representing day laborers and domestic workers.”

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