Nonprofit Helps Support Latino Immigrants in Prince George’s County

With a building that stands in the center of a large Latino immigrant community, CASA promises to help immigrants regardless of the situation.

President Trump’s campaign for president, the increase in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) activity and most recently shutting down the government to get money for the border wall and declaring a national emergency at the border, have all contributed to an increase in hostility towards Latino immigrants.

Trump throughout his presidential run spoke ill of immigrants. Much of his campaign was based on his rhetoric against immigrants. He promised a border wall and often called Latino immigrants rapists and criminals, which, in part, led to his election into the White House. 

During his announcement that he would be declaring a national emergency at the U.S. and Mexico border, Trump referenced an immigrant from Maryland who was involved in an accident that killed a man to further his point of immigrants being a danger to the U.S. 

“Your husband was just killed in Maryland… beautiful children won’t be seeing their father anymore,” Trump said to the wife of the victim. Carlos Wolff, who immigrated from Venezuela when he was eight years old, was killed in an accident by Roberto Garza Palacios, who immigrated from Guatemala and overstayed his visa.

‘All I know is Maryland’

Gabriela Hernandez crossed the border into America at four years old. She and her mother left El Salvador so Hernandez would have better opportunities when she got older. “After we crossed the border we came to Maryland. So all I know is Maryland,” says Hernandez. Hernandez is now 20 years old, a DACA recipient and a significant part of CASA’s organizing efforts. She attends rallies, marches and most other organizing efforts held by CASA. She was even Congressman Steny Hoyer’s guest to the 2018 State of the Union address.

Hernandez discussed the struggles she faced growing up without proper documentation. She explained that as an elementary school student she learned she could never be president and did not react well. As a high schooler, teachers would offer her opportunities and things to help advance her education that she could not receive because of her status. “They’d tell me, ‘There’s this opportunity, you can go here or here’ and I’d say, ‘You see that part that says you have to be a legal resident of the United States? I can’t.’”

Hernandez is also involved with CASA’s sister organization CASA in Action, which helps effect legislative change. She goes with the organization to help lobby for laws. She says the lobbying side is her favorite. “I get to see face to face who is making the laws and saying okay this is a law and this isn’t a law.”

Many immigrants, even those who do have proper documentation, have felt unsafe and unwelcome from the narrative. According to Prince George’s County’s profile on DATAUSA.io, 17.8% of the county is Hispanic, and the most common birthplace for foreign-born residents is El Salvador. 13.1% of the county’s residents are not legal citizens. CASA offers programs and events to help support the Latino and immigrant community in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. CASA also supports various organization efforts in the Latino and immigrant community.

Recently CASA helped a woman detained by ICE be released from custody. Ingrid Zelaya, CASA’s communications specialist, says Roxana Orellana Santos was first profiled and arrested by two deputies from the Frederick County sheriff’s department in 2008. She was again arrested in January of this year during a routine check-in without, Zelaya says, a full explanation. The arrest came days before a court date to determine the extent of the damages Frederick County owes Santos from her civil rights suit, which CASA helped Santos pursue, from 2008.

It also spoke out against a police officer who was accused of raping an undocumented immigrant woman. The Fox5DC report states the officer, Ryan Macklin, assaulted the woman during a traffic stop in Langley Park. “Macklin is accused of forcing the woman to perform a sexual act in her car in a nearby parking lot while he was on-duty and in uniform driving a marked police cruiser,” the report states.

In the report CASA’s Director of Education, Maritza Solano says, “This is known as a community mostly made up of immigrants, different status. It’s not coincidental that she would be stopped and asked for that type of favor in exchange for her not to be reported or be cited.”

An October 2018 survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center, showed that Latinos felt it was harder to live in the United States since Trump became president. Many say they live in fear that they or their friends or family may be deported. Many who are still trying to become naturalized citizens feel a sense of dread constantly. 

“The immigrant community has always had the bond of the fear of being exposed as undocumented. It was always a hush, hush thing,” Hernandez says. It has been a lot more vocalized after Trump was elected as, Hernandez says, she has heard people express their fear often throughout his presidency.

‘The rhetoric and atmosphere has changed’

Noel Andersen, who works with Church World Service, grew up in California and began his activism after he noticed the discrimination the Latino community faced. He now mostly works with refugees from countries like Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal, etc. and says “I think all of them have” expressed more of a sense of fear to him in the last three years. “The general sentiment is that the rhetoric and atmosphere has changed in the last three years and has increased animosity, hostility and hate crimes.”

Through a partnership with the AmeriCorps program, CASA offers an initiative that includes citizenship education, mentoring, interview preparation and application assistance. Trained AmeriCorps members provide these services, and CASA provides a microloan program, so members do not have to worry much about the cost.

“We are an advocacy group that works to empower and expand opportunities for members to thrive economically and politically,” says Zelaya. The organization works to give members of the community services that are lacking in society.

“I got involved with CASA because of DACA. They helped me renew and apply for DACA the first time,” Hernandez says. CASA holds DACA clinics where they help DREAMers fill out the application to make sure everything is correct for a better chance at getting approved. Hernandez says she later became an activist when Trump announced he was attempting to end the DREAM Act and advance parole, which allowed non-U.S. citizens without a valid immigrant visa to re-enter after leaving the country.

Not only does CASA assist with gaining citizenship, but it also encourages members and communities to fight for social justice by organizing regional outreach. Their partner organization, CASA in Action, is the Mid-Atlantic region’s largest organization fighting for immigrant’s rights. They organize members to help various campaigns and to encourage people of color to go out and vote.

Zelaya says most of the organizations organizing efforts recently have been focused on passing the Trust Act in Maryland. The bill would prohibit police statewide from stopping, arresting or detaining individuals to check for immigration violations. “Members are in Annapolis meeting representatives and senators to tell them what they need from them so that they can feel safe,” said Zelaya.  

CASA also rarely falters to take action when faced with injustice against immigrants in Prince George’s County. When asked about Santos, Zelaya said, “We have been fighting with her for ten years… and will continue fighting so she can stay free and with her children.” According to a report by Fox 5 D.C., the woman sought out help from CASA after reporting what happened to her. CASA then spoke out on her behalf claiming that they felt the woman was targeted based on her status.

“The biggest thing that CASA does to help immigrant families is provide the support and the backbone to remind everybody that no matter how you came to this country, no matter what you look like, no matter who you are, you have rights.