Executive Director of CASA, Gustavo Torres oversees the largest Latino and immigrant organization in the Mid-Atlantic. Gustavo came to the United States from Colombia. He joined CASA’s staff as a community organizer and became CASA’s executive director in 1994. Under his leadership, CASA has grown from a small social service organization to over 125,000 members entity. His tireless efforts expanded CASA in Maryland, Virginia, Georgia and Pennsylvania. Gustavo helped to lead CASA in 2012 to pass the Maryland DREAM act, established Welcome Centers and lead efforts to allow all Marylanders to obtain a driver license, regardless of immigration status. He played vital role in increasing the minimum wage in Maryland, Prince George’s County, Montgomery County, and Baltimore City. His wife Sonia Mora, ACAO of Montgomery County did pioneer service in providing healthcare to Latino community. Gustavo and Sonia joined together to provide shelter, food, education, healthcare, legal service and other services to immigrants. The interview covers topics of expansion of CASA, financial help to immigrants, benefits of coop, challenges to Latino children, healthcare to immigrants, endorsement of candidates, helping undocumented Latinos and working with other ethnic groups.
Nagender Madavaram: You have been associated with Central American Solidarity Association called CASA for longtime. What inspired you to think that CASA is a right platform for you to serve the people?
Gustavo Torres: CASA is the largest Latino American organization in the Mid Atlantic with 125,000 members. The members are low-income immigrants. A group of U.S. citizens and refugees from Central America come together in Takoma Park and started CASA in 1980. The founders met at Presbyterian Church in Tacoma Park and they decided to create an organization to welcome the refugee community. Thirty-five years ago, the visionary people thought of an organization to provide basic social services to the community. Since then, we have been growing and growing because of our community has been growing tremendously. CASA is not only serving people from Central America, but also immigrants from all around the world. We have a lot of people from Africa and South America. All of those people become members. Now, we not only provide basic services, but also other services such as vocational training, English classes, computer classes, skills development, legal service, housing orientation and small business ownership training. Our goal is to integrate our members and the immigrant community into the society. That is the reason why we are very proud of our work. Our Board of Directors took very important decision to organize and build power in our community. We organized our community to fight for immigration reform at the federal level, driver license and tuition fee at the state level.
Our Board of Directors took a very important decision to create an organization, called CASA in Action for a political reason. A lot of members come to me directly and say for whom they need to support? As a 501 (C) 3 organization we cannot tell people to support someone in the election because it is illegal. We were constrained from telling our members to support progressive candidates. So, that is the reason our community leaders created a different 501 (C) 4 organization, CASA in Action. The political organization can endorse, support and encourage people to vote for good candidates. We endorsed Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, our future governor, Tom Perez and many other progressive candidates. I am the President of CASA in Action and I can tell people for whom they can vote. We keep growing and now I want you to tell, we are very happy that we just opened operations few months ago in Georgia. We opened operations in Georgia because the state is a very important for the future of this great nation. So, we are now organizing the immigrant community, the refugees in Georgia to make sure that they receive the benefits and services.
Expansion of CASA:
Nagender Madavaram: It is good you opened office in Georgia. We have seen results in recent President and US Senate elections. Can you expand your activities to Texas? There is good number of Latinos in Texas.
Gustavo Torres: Absolutely, Texas is in our radar. We will serve immigrant community in Texas very soon. We are focusing state by state because our communities are telling us where we should go. Our members are asking us we need you here. So, for instance, four years ago when we decided to go to Pennsylvania. Hurricane Maria was a deadly Category 5 hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017. It is regarded as the worst natural disaster in recorded history of Puerto Rico. So, a lot of people left Puerto Rico and moved to Pennsylvania. The migrants faced resistance from some locals in Pennsylvania though they are US citizens. CASA went there and supported new arrivals. The same thing is happening in Georgia. It is a very important state where lot of immigrants are living but not many organizations are helping the immigrant community. We are there to provide services to the community to make sure that we can build our network.
I wanted you to know that we do different strategies. Number one is that we welcome immigrants and protect their interests. For example, recently two refugees arrived from Texas. You might have heard busing of immigrants to Washington DC. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has been sending immigrants from the southwest border to the Washington DC, via a 33-hour bus ride. He sent documented and undocumented immigrants to DC. We proudly provided services to them. Now, we are helping them to learn English and trying to find jobs for them. Our goal is to make sure that they have a full-time job with good salary to support their families.
Most of the immigrants are victims either in their countries or on the way to the US. We provide all kinds of support to them including psychiatric help. We teach them to fight for their dignity without compromise. We teach them to be a good worker and a good fighter for basic rights. You need to fight for you. We train them every single day to enhance self-confidence. That is our vision.
Nagender Madavaram: It’s amazing to know that you are not only making them to settle down in the US but also giving them leadership skill to solve their problems in future. They may start another CASA unit in their hometown and become part of growing CASA network.
Gustavo Torres: Absolutely, every leader is going to start another unique CASA unit somewhere and help other people rather than depending upon someone. Our job is to end dependency up on a leader. We teach people to lead their lives independently. They may say one day that we don’t need CASA anymore. That is our goal. The day when people say we don’t need CASA any longer, we consider it is our success.
Financial Help to Immigrants:
Nagender Madavaram: You are making them independent in protecting their basic rights. How the CASA is helping immigrants in financial arena?
Gustavo Torres: We do couple of things; number one is that we fight for policies that impact our community, like the living wage. We helped to pass a living wage at the state level and at the local level in Montgomery. Why are we hearing about minimum wage in Maryland and Virginia? This is very important issue for immigrants because it benefits not just thousands, but millions of people. That helps our community. Number 2 is, we help people who start and manage existing businesses. We help them to apply for loans. We make sure that they are going to have the tax ID. We see that they pay taxes. We see that they become fully integrated in the society. We are developing a model of blogs. So, we train our community to make sure that they develop business groups to help each other. We encourage people to be business owners. So that they don’t need to be hired for somebody.
Benefits of Coop:
Nagender Madavaram: Small farmers are facing serious problems in selling their produce, storing in cold storage and getting loans. Coop may be right solution to create infrastructure for common use of farmers in this area. You have exposure to experience of Latin American Countries. What is your suggestion?
Gustavo Torres: Well, one of the challenges that we are facing in this country is that the banks don’t consider coop like a business, so it’s very difficult to provide loan to farmers. That is the challenge we really need to overcome. We believe that coop is the right model. Having a coop is very important because the only thing that you need is of a 19 number and then you can establish your own a small business.
Challenges to Latino Children:
Nagender Madavaram: What specific challenges Latino children are facing in the schools?
Gustavo Torres: All kids and parents feel right now that they need immigration. When you are on that deportation list, it is very difficult for the parents to participate in the education activities of the kids because they are very scared of extradition. We still have 11 million people who are undocumented. Many people live in Montgomery County. Kids are in uncertain situation. They are fearful of losing their parents all the time. Kids always worry day and night that deportation of parents may take place at any time. It’s going to be really difficult to fully integrate them. We make sure that we have good education for our family.
We expect Montgomery County schools should challenge our students in the classrooms. Our kids are brilliant but teachers don’t challenge them because teachers say children don’t speak English, so therefore they are not smart enough. That is probably the problem.
Healthcare to Immigrants:
Nagender Madavaram: Your wife, Sonia Mora dedicated her life for healthcare of Latino community. It is big issue for undocumented workers in this country. You know the seriousness of this problem. How the CASA is helping uninsured people in immigrant community?
Gustavo Torres: You’re right, it is a big problem. We should be very clear about it. Healthcare is not a privilege but a fundamental right. We are going to have healthcare for all. Around 300,000 people don’t have health insurance and they still live. Majority of them are low-income people. I think that it’s our responsibility to make sure that we are going to solve the problem once for all. My wife only has been educating me a lot about healthcare. In many occasions people don’t have a single penny to pay for an emergency. They can’t afford the cost of hospitals and sometimes people die. In fact, 25% of the people die because they don’t have health insurance. I am asking Montgomery County to have healthcare with more coverage.
We have a great victory at state level that pregnant women should have the opportunity to go to the hospital to deliver the babies at free of charge. We’ve had the legislation passed in this year in Annapolis. Beginning July 1st, mothers are going to have a chance to deliver babies in the hospitals irrespective of immigration status. It is very important. We have been doing some kind of coordinating with the community clinics to make sure that everybody gets vaccination. We made vaccines available in pharmacies of Montgomery County. We provide prevention classes. We have a special program that our family members go knocking doors in their community to see what is the problems that people face. If necessary, refer them to the hospitals and community clinics. This is a very important initiative to resolve all of these issues. We got to pass healthcare for all. I got to tell you this, my commitment is to ensure that we are going to have healthcare for all in Maryland.
Endorsement of Candidates:
Nagender Madavaram: Usually, labor unions provide volunteers to help their endorsed candidates in elections. How CASA supports its endorsed candidates?
Gustavo Torres: Of course, our volunteers go knocking doors. Every member of CASA wants to join and help the candidates. We have our troops on the ground to make sure that our candidates are elected.
Helping Undocumented Latinos:
Nagender Madavaram: What services do you provide to specifically for undocumented services?
Gustavo Torres: Regardless of immigration status, we welcome everybody. We provide services who needs some jobs, education, English classes, computer training and legal services. We don’t ask immigration status because no human being is illegal.
Working with Other Ethnic Groups:
Nagender Madavaram: You are expanding activities of CASA and helping people in many states. Do you have plans to expand your network to other ethnic groups to achieve big goals?
Gustavo Torres: It is impossible to win justice without help of the Black community and other communities. We need larger coalitions to fight for dignity and justice like police reform, criminal justice and affordable housing. The only way we are going to be successful when we partnered with the Black community and other immigrant communities. So, we have been working very hard for many years with various communities. We are going to keep doing same thing. CASA is very small organization when you compare with the big issue. We are so tiny, so we need to make sure that this is going to be a stronger to ensure that we deal with the issues that we face. The only way how we can do it is when we have partnership with other people. Let people know that we are ready to partner with other communities to keep fighting for the dignity and justice. We need to stop the war. We need to resolve that humanity is the most important thing. We need to fight for things that are very important for the poor people.