- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

The recent struggle in Gaithersburg and elsewhere in Montgomery County to keep day laborers from loitering in public again has put CASA of Maryland at the center of the debate about illegal aliens.

During the advocacy group’s 20 years of existence, it has helped open day-laborer centers in Silver Spring and Wheaton and has been a recognizable influence in the General Assembly.

“Without question, we think that we have accomplished our mission, which is to be a voice for low-income communities and the immigrant community, regardless of immigration status,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director.

The group was created to help Central American refugees coming to the region to escape hunger, poverty and war. But over the years, it has expanded to help women and low-income families from the United States and immigrants from Africa, Asia and other parts of Latin America.

The group has served 12,000 people in the past year and at least 100,000 persons in 20 years, Mr. Torres, 44, said yesterday.

However, the group often has received the most attention for helping to open and then run the day-laborer centers, including a temporary one in Takoma Park.

Early this month, the group found itself at the center of a controversy over a day-laborer center in downtown Gaithersburg that city and Montgomery County officials and group members negotiated for without including residents.

The county withdrew from the deal, and the center never was opened. However, group members remain committed to working with residents to find a different location.

Beyond such grass-roots efforts as opening centers and offering in-house services like English classes and health screenings, the group also has worked at the state Capitol for laws to help and protect immigrants.

They have helped outlaw fraudulent immigration services and helped defeat at least 10 bills that would have limited the rights of immigrants in the state.

The group receives no direct federal money, though the U.S. government funds HIV-prevention and -testing programs for La Clinica del Pueblo, a District-based partner.

Mr. Torres, a native of Colombia, said he identifies with the people the group serves.

“I am an immigrant myself, and I also was a journalist in Central America,” he said. “I had the opportunity to meet a lot of policy-makers, community members and workers [in Latin America] to discuss conditions there. So, I’m very familiar with the challenges they face.”

He said the group will continue helping immigrants achieve their dreams of U.S. citizenship.

“I see thousands of people who are already qualified,” he said. “Our job over the next 20 years is to help them become American citizens and to make sure that they have the American dream.”

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