CASA scrambles to save political, financial support

November 10, 2023

Maryland Matters

Members of CASA rally on Lawyers Mall in Annapolis earlier this year in favor of a bill that would have expanded health care for undocumented immigrants. Photo by Bryan P. Sears.

These should be heady times for CASA, the immigrants’ rights group based in Langley Park.

The organization just finalized its new strategic plan, and canvassers from CASA’s political unit were on the ground in Virginia for the past few weeks, contributing to the Democrats’ significant victories in legislative races. CASA helped muscle through groundbreaking rent control legislation in Montgomery County earlier this year, and the state Senate committee chair who tucked a piece of health care legislation in her desk drawer last spring that was a priority for the group has just left the legislature.

But instead of celebrating these developments, CASA, the biggest and most consequential immigrants’ rights group in the Mid-Atlantic, finds itself on its heels this week, and facing suggestions that it could lose a substantial amount of its political support — not to mention public and private funding.

The crisis emerged after the group’s leaders released a statement and social media posts over the weekend expressing solidarity with Palestinians as war rages in Gaza, accompanied by pictures of CASA staffers at a Washington, D.C., peace demonstration. The statement said, in part, “We stand shoulder to shoulder with countless Black and brown freedom activists from around the world. We specifically condemn the utilization of US tax dollars to promote the ongoing violence [in the Middle East]. We call for an immediate ceasefire to save all precious life and halt the systematic ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.

“Like much of the world, we join in condemning the outrageous attack by Hamas in Israel. Our hearts go out to the innocent children and families caught in the midst of this horrendous conflict.”

But the statement concluded with the line: “Free Palestine now!”

The reaction was swift and angry: Critics, including prominent Maryland elected officials, said they saw antisemitic tropes and sentiments in CASA’s statement.

CASA quickly pulled the social media posts, and later issued a new, shorter post apologizing for the language in the prior statement. But the damage had been done.

“I don’t think this can be forgiven,” said state Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery). “There’s no apology that’s sufficient.”

Several public denunciations of CASA followed from elected leaders and other interest groups, including longtime allies. The two Latino members of the Montgomery County Council, Gabriel Albornoz (D) and Natali Fani-González (D), expressed extreme disappointment, saying in a statement that CASA’s “ill-informed comments and actions” have “made an already emotional and horrific situation in our community worse.”

CASA is now under intense scrutiny for its tactics, priorities and governing structure. A statement released Wednesday night by all nine of Montgomery County’s senators — six of whom are Jewish — was particularly unforgiving, and came with suggestions that the organization’s state funding could be in jeopardy. That’s a potential existential threat for CASA, which receives about two-thirds of its money from local, state and federal governments.

“When we say hate has no home here, we must mean it,” the lawmakers wrote. “We cannot and will not allow taxpayer money to subsidize hate speech. In light of CASA’s recent postings and statements, this might be an appropriate time to reevaluate the state’s mechanism for providing financial aid and support to our immigrant community.

“More specifically, we must ensure that public funds are not being used to promote antisemitism and Jewish hate. We hope that this is a learning opportunity for CASA and that they focus on their mission of lifting all people up.”

In an interview late Wednesday, Gustavo Torres, CASA’s longtime executive director — who over three-plus decades has built the organization into the community service stalwart and political force it has become — repeatedly expressed remorse and regret over the group’s statement on the war in Gaza, and said he was surprised at the firestorm it created.

Torres said he has spent the past few days calling and texting elected officials and other supporters to apologize — and is promising the organization will do what it can to make amends and ensure that it does a better job of communicating its views in the future.

“We are taking this mistake that we made very seriously,” he said. “We are evaluating what we did, how we negatively impacted our brothers and sisters in the Jewish community. That was not our intention at all.”

But Torres also said that weighing in on the war in the Middle East, “speaking out for humanity and peace,” is consistent with CASA’s mission and worldview. He noted that where originally CASA worked exclusively with immigrants from Central America, it now serves newcomers to the U.S. from 53 different countries and has weighed in on international crises in the recent past, including human rights abuses in Venezuela, civil strife in Cameroon and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“We have always spoken against injustice and violence against innocent people,” Torres said.

Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA. Photo by Bryan P. Sears.

How did CASA, whose record of service to struggling immigrant communities is unparalleled in Maryland, suddenly find itself in such peril? How serious are disgruntled elected officials about meting out punishment? What do CASA’s leaders need to do to work themselves back into the political establishment’s good graces? And what’s going to happen next?

Ronald Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, which has worked with CASA on providing direct services to the region’s immigrants, said he was caught off-guard by the organization’s statement and felt the opinions expressed were inappropriate and unduly harsh.

“They’re an excellent social services agency and they do wonderful things,” Halber said of CASA. “Our anger is not at their work — our anger is at their words.”

Liberal American Jewish people have long considered themselves allies of the civil rights movements of yesteryear and today. And many U.S. Jews, whose ancestors were immigrants, feel a particular kinship with recent arrivals from Latin America and elsewhere. In social media posts, the gunman who slaughtered 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 and wounded six others wrote that he was targeting Jewish people because of their support for Central American newcomers.

Several elected officials, including high-profile Latino politicians, said they were surprised that CASA as an organization would want to wade into the complicated and emotional thicket of Middle East politics, regardless of the individual views of the group’s leaders.

“I respect the right for them to express themselves with regards to this sensitive and complex issue,” said Del. Deni Taveras (D-Prince George’s), whose district has the highest concentration of Latinos in the state — and is where CASA’s headquarters are. “However, we must remain focused on what we are tasked to do here, locally and nationally, which is to improve the lives of new arrivals and immigrant families and provide them a path for citizenship and assimilation into American society.”

Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), the senior Latino official in the legislature and chair of the House Health and Government Operations Committee, was tending to family business in the Dominican Republic this week and unavailable to comment.

Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-Montgomery), chair of the Maryland Legislative Latino Caucus, said he has been having private conversations with caucus members and that they are weighing their options for responding to the controversy.

‘It’s a different organization than it was 15 or 20 years ago’

Torres acknowledged that CASA’s mission has expanded over the years. Where once it focused almost exclusively on services like English lessons, job training, help with immigration status and housing assistance, the organization now lobbies local governments and the State House, joining coalitions with other advocacy groups to fight for universal health care, environmental justice, rent control, immigration reform and many other issues.

“We want to make sure we pass policies that favorably impact our communities,” Torres said. He called the diversity of the groups that CASA now works with “so powerful and so beautiful.”

CASA also has a political arm, CASA in Action, for its advocacy work and to endorse and support candidates for state and local offices. And, like several advocacy groups on the left seeking to put pressure on liberal local governments in Maryland and Democratic supermajorities in the General Assembly, CASA has adopted increasingly aggressive tactics in recent years.

On the final Friday of this year’s legislative session in Annapolis, for example, seven CASA activists were arrested blocking the front entrance to the State House, as they attempted to persuade the Senate to support immigrant health legislation that the then-chair of the Finance Committee, Sen. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s), had bottled up (Griffith recently left the legislature to lead the Maryland Hospital Association). CASA activists also stormed one of the offices of Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) to pressure Senate leaders to pass the legislation.

CASA activists were a regular and occasionally noisy presence in the Montgomery County Council hearing room in the spring and summer, as the council debated and eventually passed a measure to bring rent control to a market where affordable housing is at a premium. The organization was a major player in the coalition that succeeded in passing the highly controversial legislation and has been unafraid of criticizing political leaders who oppose CASA’s views or are seen as insufficiently supportive.

Some elected officials said this week they are uncomfortable with CASA’s increasingly combative posture during policy battles and political campaigns and believe some of the animus directed at the organization for its tweets on the war in Gaza may not just be related to the current controversy.

“It’s a different organization than it was 15 or 20 years ago,” said Montgomery County Councilmember Andrew Friedson (D) — who was the first elected official to publicly criticize CASA’s statement on the Middle East, which was originally reported on the website Montgomery Perspective. “People are grappling with that and I think it’s bigger than the moment.”

Some officials have also said they see a blurring of the activities of CASA, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, and CASA In Action, the 501(c)4 educational entity that enables the group to advocate during policy debates and operates a political action committee that supports political candidates. They couldn’t help but notice that the tweets on the Middle East came from CASA’s account on X (formerly known as Twitter) rather than from the advocacy arm, and that the staffers in the accompanying pictures were wearing CASA T-shirts, rather than CASA In Action T-shirts.

Torres said CASA’s leadership is careful to keep the activities of the two entities separate. There’s a memorandum of understanding between the two sides, “describing specific roles,” he said, and it’s reviewed and “refined” annually by lawyers and auditors.

While lawmakers at the state and county levels ponder whether the governments’ contracts with CASA ought to be audited, to ensure that public funds aren’t being used for political activities, Torres has told at least one legislator that CASA would welcome the scrutiny.

Potential consequences

But an audit may be the least of the group’s worries.

The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation in Baltimore has been CASA’s largest private donor over the past few years, helping to fund a worker training center near Patterson Park, among other projects. But the foundation has long been a supporter of Jewish causes, and in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas bombings in southern Israel announced that it was sending $5 million in aid to Israeli relief organizations to provide emergency and basic services.

“We were deeply concerned about CASA’s statement and we are in conversations with CASA leadership about this situation,” a Weinberg Foundation executive, Arin Gencer, told Maryland Matters this week.

As the Montgomery senators’ letter showed, there are now open discussions among political leaders about stripping CASA of government funding, to the extent possible. But it wouldn’t be that easy.

According to figures provided by the county executive’s office, Montgomery County alone is spending $16.3 million this year for CASA services and for capital expenses associated with a worker training facility in Rockville, a long-term funding commitment. Other contracts include legal help for immigrants eligible for citizenship, an array of services for newly-arrived immigrants and asylum-seeking youths and families, and translation for health care services.

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D), the county’s highest-ranking Jewish elected official, is on a two-week trade mission to Asia and has not weighed in on the CASA controversy. But the county’s chief administrative officer, Richard Madaleno, said he believes the organization has offered “a clear apology.”

“Clearly CASA has been a long and valued partner for the county government, for so many other nonprofit organizations, and for private organizations across the county and this entire region in terms of delivering services to immigrants of all types,” he said. “We continue to look forward to working with CASA as that valued partner.”

As soon as the war in Gaza broke out, Montgomery County made $300,000 available to houses of worship and religious organizations for extra security.

“Job No. 1 in this conflict is to make sure everyone is safe and secure here, and that’s where [the county executive] continues to be focused,” Madaleno said.

Montgomery County Councilmember Kate Stewart (D), a longtime CASA ally, said the organization’s leaders need to show a sincere follow-up to their words of apology and a willingness to repair the damage from their statements by understanding why Jewish officials and their allies were so offended by the tweets — perhaps by taking trainings on the rise of antisemitism in the U.S., among other gestures.

Montgomery County Councilmember Kate Stewart (D). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

“They’ve broken a trust, and deeply so,” she said. “I really do hope that because of the importance of the work they’ve done in our communities, they will take the time to do the work.”

Even Halber, of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said he could envision collaborating with CASA again — just not immediately.

“We will work with CASA in the future, but it’s going to take some work on their part,” he said.

State lawmakers may not be so forgiving.

In interviews, several said the threat of taking away some funding now earmarked for CASA and spreading it around to other nonprofits, community groups and religious organizations is very real.

“The challenge is, how do you continue the important work of this organization while divorcing it from the hateful and harmful language of its leaders?” Kagan said.

Sen. Craig J. Zucker (D-Montgomery), chair of the Capital Budget Subcommittee, predicted that the appropriations process in the upcoming General Assembly session could present an opportunity for other groups to bid for state contracts and make the case that they can provide many of the services that CASA offers.

“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that CASA is serving a very important population,” Zucker said. “It’s important to make sure that people are getting the assistance they need across the state of Maryland.”

But, he added, “There are many organizations that are serving critical missions in the state of Maryland that are in need of money, especially when they’re serving immigrant families.”

Some elected officials acknowledge that there could be political risks associated with stripping funding from an organization that serves vulnerable populations, even if the views the organization expressed are anathema. One Latino legislator, Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery), made that very point in a statement released Thursday evening — urging the Montgomery senators to retract their statement and vowing to condemn colleagues who take punitive measures against CASA.

“As an immigrant, state legislator, and member of the House Appropriations Committee, I am disgusted that nine Montgomery County state Senators would blatantly threaten to starve immigrant communities in Maryland of state funding,” said Acevero, who has attracted his own criticism after speaking at a cease-fire rally in Rockville. “Let me be very clear, I will call out and fight any attempt by any Democrat in Annapolis to target resources for new Americans. People can disagree on policy positions, but threatening funding for critical services for immigrants because you disagree with their First Amendment protected speech is xenophobic.”

Torres said CASA leaders “are focused on providing high-quality services to our communities and to our members” and hope the organization doesn’t lose “the very important funding to help our communities.”

“We are sad that people are focused on CASA and not on the crisis in the Middle East,” he said.