For 25 years, Casa de Maryland has been providing support services — English as a second language, legal advice, training for day laborers, road-to-citizenship classes — to thousands of poor Latinos who immigrated to the United States and settled in Maryland, particularly the D.C. suburbs. War and civil unrest in Central America in the 1980s caused thousands of families to flee north, and it was in the basement of a Presbyterian church in Takoma Park that Casa's first volunteers provided emergency clothing and food to new arrivals.
Casa de Maryland says it now helps up to 20,000 immigrants a year. It provides legal advice and employment assistance to day laborers, vocational training, financial literacy classes and health information. It has job centers in Silver Spring, Wheaton, Baltimore, Rockville and Hyattsville. On Saturday in Langley Park (after the deadline for this column), Casa was scheduled to open a 20,000-square-foot multicultural center nearly a decade in the making.
Casa has the support of numerous religious leaders, foundations and local and state governments. The new multicultural center cost nearly $14 million. Some of the money came from Maryland taxpayers. Like it or not, we have thousands of new arrivals in our midst all the time, and in a state as progressive, as affluent and as generous as Maryland, it is no surprise that Casa emerged and received public support to carry out its mission.
Because Casa does not discriminate and offers help unconditionally, Maryland's loudmouth xenophobes bash it as a criminal support group for thousands of undocumented workers. (I assume they think Casa employees — social workers, vocational counselors, legal staffers — should just call the cops when dark-skinned families show up for help.) Casa critics say Maryland taxpayers should not support an organization that helps men, women and children who might be in the country illegally.
Among them is the leading Republican candidate for governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Thursday in this space, I reported on his support of the extreme anti-Casa group, Help Save Maryland. The same day, the Montgomery County Sentinel published a Q&A-style interview between reporter Paige Hill and Mr. Ehrlich. In it, Mr. Ehrlich let loose with an unfounded allegation that Casa de Maryland supports illegal activities.
"I think if Casa fulfilled its original mission, which is assimilation, I would be shouting from the rooftops how wonderful they are," Mr. Ehrlich said. "To the extent that they want to assist illegal behavior, I will not be shouting from any rooftops. That is an inappropriate use of taxpayer money."
He added, "If the Casas of the world cleaned up their acts, we'd be very happy to support them."
The published interview did not reveal what evidence, if any, Mr. Ehrlich provided to support his insinuations about Casa de Maryland. Nor could one tell from the Q&A what part of its act Mr. Ehrlich thinks Casa needs to clean up. Its outreach to low-wage laborers, domestic workers and tenants about their rights? Its legal representation of immigrants caught up in law enforcement raids? Its free translations of birth certificates, marriage certificates and school transcripts?
As of this writing, Mr. Ehrlich's campaign had not responded to my questions about his criticism of Casa. Has he conducted an independent review of its operations, or is he just repeating what he hears from his "friends" at Help Save Maryland? Is he just pandering to the xenophobes with this kind of rhetoric?
And as for Mr. Ehrlich's assertion that government support for Casa is "an inappropriate use of taxpayer money," it should be noted that some of the funding for the new multicultural center, a renovated 1924 mansion, came from state coffers while Mr. Ehrlich, as governor, sat on the state Board of Public Works.
The state provided $250,000 in 2005 and another $300,000 in 2006, according to Kim Propeack, Casa's political director and community organizer. Another $25,000 in tax credits came through the state Department of Housing and Community Development. Plus, Board of Public Works records show a separate state grant of $100,000 to Casa for an employment center renovation in 2004. That was during Mr. Ehrlich's tenure, too.
So, as you can see, there's a difference between Bob Ehrlich, candidate 2010, and Bob Ehrlich, governor 2003-2007. The xenophobes might think he's on their side. But don't let him fool ya. As the record shows, Bob Ehrlich is as progressive and as generous as the state he wishes to lead, and a real softy when it comes to Casa de Maryland.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. http://www.twitter.com/MiddayRodricks