Head of CASA is a man with a plan

Gustavo Torres is everywhere and nowhere, like air, an essential quality for a movement man. Tonight, it also makes him the perfect anxious host, dressed in a plain suit and tie that help him disappear. He chats up this cluster of guests here, reappears by that new clump of visitors there, then surfaces again in another room altogether — until everyone feels at home in one of the great mansions of suburban Washington.

“Welcome to CASA; this is your house!” he says, opening his arms as wide as Jay Gatsby beckoning friends into a dream come true.

This is not a Gatsby crowd, however, nibbling spanakopita after crossing the Ionic portico — even if the three-story red brick Georgian Revival pile was built by swells in the Jazz Age.

These are swaggering honchos of Big Labor, mingling with like-minded politicians, soft-spoken clergy, cunning idealists who hard-bargain on behalf of night cleaners, and simple residents of the teeming garden apartments visible outside every window of the mansion — which is set like a mirage on a hill in the heart of the struggling immigrant barrio that got its name from the mansion: Langley Park.

They have been summoned on this winter evening to the new home of CASA of `Maryland, where Torres is executive director. CASA’s previous casa was a construction trailer, until Torres drove the $13.8 million rehab of the abandoned estate.

“This has got to be the snazziest office of any immigrant-rights organization in the country,” says Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union. “The people who started this plantation, if only they had known it would become the People’s home.”

The guests move from the dark wood-paneled grand salon to an equally elegant reception room.

The ostensible purpose of the evening is to honor Medina, along with SEIU President Mary Kay Henry. But in their remarks, the speakers can’t help paying homage to Torres and CASA.

“I’d like to say I’m here for Mary Kay and Eliseo, but when Gustavo Torres calls, I generally get in my car and go over and ask him what he wants,” says Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot.

There’s a subtext of anticipation for the Maryland legislative session, when Torres will help lead a coalition pushing to allow undocumented Maryland high school graduates to pay in-state college tuition. But why stop there?

“I’ve started to lobby Gustavo,” Medina says. “Are you just a CASA of Maryland? How about a CASA of the East? A CASA of the United States?”

Torres squints bashfully. As a matter of fact, he has been thinking along similar lines. His own immigrant journey is not over yet. At the peak of his influence, he is on the cusp of his greatest legislative victory — albeit one that is being diluted by a populist backlash.

Suddenly a giddy band of mariachis bursts into the salon. The halls of old Langley Park brim with the brassy, sassy sound of Mexico.

* * *

Torres’s admirers can sound fawning, but there’s an equally fervid crowd convinced that he is an evil genius. Republican state Del. Pat McDonough could be a spokesman.

When McDonough, a businessman and talk radio host, won a seat to the House of Delegates in 2002 from Baltimore County, immigration wasn’t on his radar. Then, he got to Annapolis, where he discovered Torres and CASA everywhere: engaged and getting stronger.

“What the heck is this all about?” McDonough said to himself.

Since then, McDonough has become a leading foe. Chief among critics’ concerns is that nearly half of CASA’s $6 million budget comes from local, state and federal appropriations, and that CASA uses a significant portion of that money to help illegal immigrants. The renovation of the mansion, where CASA provides services to many of the 20,000 low-income immigrants it assists annually, was also partly funded with public money.

“Gustavo has created a sanctuary state,” McDonough says. “The governor does his bidding. The politicians who control power in the State of Maryland do his bidding. ... And his success has caused financial and personal heartbreak for the State of Maryland.”

McDonough is just warming up.

“Gustavo Torres is more than just a Maryland figure,” he says. “They are a globally significant organization.”

It is true that in the two decades since he arrived in the United States, Torres, 50, has transformed himself into a regional political power and a nationally pivotal character in the endless passion play over immigration. He is hardly a global player, however.

What’s remarkable is the degree to which one man — especially someone so outwardly self-effacing— inspires such hyperbolic reactions.

He is no rival for Che Guevara on a T-shirt. His features are soft and round, his manner mild. Married, with no children, he sings sentimental karaoke tangos and plays soccer with a bunch of other over-40 guys.

Sure, he can deliver a fiery speech. But his magnetism appears even more effective on subtler frequencies.

“I’ve known Gustavo for about 10 years, and in the early days of our relationship, there was a little bit of tension,” says Gregg Clickstein, president of Sawyer Realty Holdings, which owns apartment units in Maryland and used to own the Langley Park mansion.

Torres and CASA organized Sawyer’s tenants in Langley Park to rally in protest of apartment conditions.

“So, Gustavo and I end up over a bowl of pickles at the Parkway Deli,” Clickstein says. “He starts talking about his vision for CASA. What was interesting to me was, Gustavo was really talking about America. This nation of immigrants ... and this new wave of immigrants, and having the opportunity to assimilate and be great Americans. And it really just touched me.”

Tenant-landlord relations improved, and Sawyer sold the run-down mansion to CASA for $1.

* * *

Every May 1 in Medellin, Colombia, Antonio Torres, a carpenter, led his family to watch the worker-solidarity parades. Thousands promenaded from across the city to rally in el Parque Berrio. Gustavo, the second-youngest son of 15 brothers and sisters, would never forget the exhilaration.

To help make ends meet, Ilumina Yotagria would rise before dawn to cook empanadas that Gustavo and his siblings would hawk in the streets.

Just being alive in Medellin in the 1970s and 1980s was a political education. Liberal and leftist activists decried poverty and inequality. Conservatives in power had little patience for even nonviolent protest. Pablo Escobar’s flourishing cocaine empire added another layer of instability.

After high school, Gustavo enrolled in an accounting apprenticeship program, which sent him to work in a bank, where he became a union organizer.

“Even back then, the phrase he used to say was, ‘We all have rights in the community, but also, we all have duties in the community,’ ” says his older sister Martha Torres.

He earned enough at the bank to pay for university and to join a friend in opening a small taverna, called Mama Vieja, or Old Mama, which became a hangout for student activists.

In 1987, things turned savage. Students, professors and union organizers were murdered or disappeared.

Torres and his friends heard that their names were on “la lista negra,” though they never saw the notorious death list.

Torres, then 26, and a fellow student and union leader, Guillermo Useche, decided to get out of town. Torres gave Mama Vieja to his younger brother, Gabriel Jaime, a university student who volunteered in poor barrios.

Several weeks later, as Gabriel Jaime was opening the taverna, strangers arrived.

Is Gustavo here? Is Gabriel Jaime here?

I’m Gabriel Jaime.

They shot him multiple times. He died on the way to the hospital. Nobody was arrested.

* * *

Torres and Useche lit out for Nicaragua. The pair got jobs with El Tayacan, a weekly newspaper that supported the Sandinista revolution. Torres also worked on a European-funded study of Sandinista land reform, which sent him into rural areas to interview campesinos.

“He was so simple and sweet, he knew how to talk to all kinds of people and immediately they liked him,” Useche says.

The campesinos made a deep impression when they grumbled that the revolutionary planners should have consulted them before ordering them to grow rice, instead of more practical coffee or beans.

By the time the Sandinistas were voted out of power in 1990, Torres says he was in love with an American, Lois Wessel, who was working on a public health project in Managua. Wessel suggested they move to the United States so she could pursue a nursing degree.

Torres and Wessel came to Washington in 1991 and got married. Torres arrived on a tourist visa, then applied for work authorization and a green card.

His marriage smoothed his path to citizenship in 1995, he says. He and Wessel were divorced in late 1996, but both say they remain on good terms.

“This is the country I chose to live in,” he says. “But I didn’t choose to be quiet, and to not push for changes.

“If I did these kinds of things in Colombia, I’d have been killed a long time ago.”

Torres’s first job in the United States was painting houses. Controversy was boiling in Langley Park. As many as 150 day laborers congregated daily at the corner of University Boulevard and Piney Branch Road to seek work.

Lael Parish, executive director of what was then called Central American Solidarity and Assistance, CASA for short, hired Torres in 1991 to help organize the day laborers.

“He was just an amazing personality, charismatic, energetic, and somebody who clearly just had this real-life organizing experience,” says Parish, who suggested Torres as her successor in 1994. “He’s a big-picture thinker, and organizers aren’t always.”

* * *

Today’s English lesson is how to order food. About two dozen laborers painstakingly enunciate their favorite dishes. Chicken, pizza, Burger King.

The early morning class in a Shady Grove construction trailer is drawing to a close when Torres bounds in.

“Shall I talk in English?” he teases.

The effort to pass the in-state tuition bill — informally known as the Maryland Dream Act — has reached a critical stage. Torres wants to enlist workers for a lobby blitz.

“Who’s coming to Annapolis?” he asks in Spanish.

Everybody!

“Who knows what ‘to lobby’ means?”

Nobody.

A civics lesson ensues.

“The Republicans want to make Maryland like Arizona,” he says. “We need to show that Maryland is different from other states.”

Torres’s over-simple portrayal of Republicans as enemies and Democrats as friends on immigration prompts a worker to raise his hand.

“I see the president is a Democrat, and now is when we immigrants have felt the most oppression,” the man says.

“Excellent point,” Torres replies. “There are more deportations under this administration than under Bush. ”

Later, he marvels at the worker’s political acumen.

“I was protecting the president a little bit, and the worker confronts me and says, Go to hell!” Torres says.

During a White House meeting in March 2010, Torres urged President Obama to focus more on deporting criminals. Now, Torres detects disenchantment with Obama going viral among Latinos, and the activist is mulling a plan for mass arrests in front of the White House later this month.

The scene in Shady Grove crystallizes Torres’s crusade. Transforming poor immigrants into job holders into English students into advocates on their own behalf — that’s what it’s all about.

It wasn’t an obvious goal. When he became director, CASA’s budget was less than $500,000, the staff numbered five, the office was a church basement.

Torres launched excursions to Annapolis. Poor immigrants treading the marble corridors was unprecedented.

“He instills courage,” says Herminia Servat, a grandmother from Peru who came to CASA in 1999 for help finding a job. She got a construction position and joined the first lobbying trips to Annapolis. “I felt important. I was transformed.”

Sometimes Torres stumbled. A decade ago, he was presenting his legislative agenda at a sweltering community meeting in Takoma Park. He was as full of high ideas as those know-it-all leaders of the Sandinista revolution. Affordable housing! Health care!

“One of the workers said, ‘With all due respect, this is not a priority for us,’ ” Torres recalls. “I thought, health care, housing, not a priority!?”

No, said the worker. “Our priority is a driver’s license.”

So basic, and Torres had missed it. CASA turned its focus to the issue of obtaining and keeping driver’s licenses; under a later compromise, undocumented immigrants who had licenses as of 2009 can keep them until 2015.

Like a bodybuilder, Torres methodically bulked up both sets of CASA’s muscles: services and advocacy. Immigrant-rights marches in Washington were anemic affairs until 2006, when Torres and labor allies started turning out hundreds of thousands of local residents on the Mall.

Now CASA’s budget is $6 million; the staff numbers 65, plus 30 part-time English teachers; and CASA has 10,000 members who pay $25 annual dues. Its five centers in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties and Baltimore City filled 18,989 temporary jobs and 248 permanent ones last year, according to CASA. Those workers earned $2.6 million in the last six months. CASA lawyers closed 1,108 cases.

Torres also created a parallel nonprofit, CASA in Action, to do direct political work and endorse candidates, with a budget of $100,000 funded without taxpayer dollars.

“Immigration reform won’t happen, and the Latino community will not come of age politically, until there are 50 Gustavo Torreses,” says Frank Sharry, founder of America’s Voice, a national immigrant advocacy group. “He’s a pioneer in what historians will write about as the immigrant-led Latino movement, for whom immigration reform is akin to the big civil rights legislation of the 1960s for the African American community.”

Critics complain that because CASA serves low-income immigrants without regard to legal status, it inevitably assists thousands of illegal immigrants, in part with taxpayer money.

“Why is it taxpayers are subsidizing an organization that appears to be systematically working to promote, encourage, accommodate and reward illegal behavior?” says Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based group that favors restricting legal and illegal immigration.

In addition to government money, more than half of CASA’s annual budget over the years has come from member dues and corporations and foundations such as the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, Bank of America, Wachovia Bank and Citgo.

Torres argues that it makes moral and practical sense to help people who are building lives here. Though he never lacked legal papers, when he meets an undocumented immigrant, he sees someone he recognizes — someone who never would have left home if things hadn’t been worse than difficult.

“What inspires me is what I’ve seen for the last 30 years: people who lack opportunities, here or in Colombia,” he says. But “they keep fighting for justice.”

* * *

A cooler’s worth of whole tilapia sizzles in oil on the kitchen stove, while a platter of crisp and salty fried green plantains — patacones, Colombian-style — and a pitcher of pisco sours are passed among the dozen or so guests this Saturday night at casa Torres-Mora on a quiet lane in Silver Spring.

Sonia Mora, whom Torres married in 2002, is the charmingly serene foil to Torres’s frenetically ubiquitous host routine. A male Colombian colleague of Torres’s does the cooking — for this is actually an office party.

Mora worries that work and play are too often the same thing for her overextended husband.

“This is not a job for him; it’s sort of like a calling that he has,” she says later. “Part of what I see as my, quote, mission as his partner is to kind of help him step away from work sometimes. He needs to think about himself.”

She is the manager of Montgomery County’s Latino Health Initiative. As a hobby, she plays guitar in a band called Café y Caribe. A Colombian immigrant like her husband, she met Torres in the 1990s when she provided HIV education to the day laborers.

“If you knew his mom” — Ilumina — “she was such an incredibly compassionate person,” Mora says. “When Gustavo was growing up, and they were struggling at times with so many kids, she always managed to have the extra plate for someone else. ... I think he has always carried that.”

In the middle of the Annapolis legislative session, Ilumina died. She was 86. (Antonio had died years earlier.) Torres returned to Medellin for the funeral and the first gathering of his union comrades since they scattered for their lives 24 years ago.

Tonight, less than a month after his mother’s death, he conceals his grief. But he does something subtly in her honor. She had a beautiful voice, and just as there was always singing at house parties back in Medellin, so there is in Silver Spring.

Torres connects a laptop and microphone to speakers and logs onto a karaoke Web site. Taking turns on the mike, egging each other on, hosts and guests belt out tangos, boleros, folk songs, love songs until past 1 a.m.

One of Ilumina’s favorites was a wistful waltz called “El Camino de la Vida” — “The Path of Life.” It’s about falling in love, having children, watching the children move far away. She would sing it to Torres over the phone. She would cry, then laugh — sad he left, glad he could do his work in a safer environment.

Torres and Mora have worked up a performance of that song but are saving it. Then, a week after the party, at a memorial service in Washington for Ilumina, Torres stands at the front of the church in a dark suit while Mora plucks her guitar. In a rich tenor, his eyes watery, the son who went away sings “El Camino de la Vida.”

* * *

Torres and nine colleagues sit around conference tables in the mansion’s former dining room, “dreaming together” about the future. In his left-handed scrawl, he jots notes to himself, including “positive social change.”

It’s part of an elaborately earnest process this summer to draft CASA’s five-year plan and retool its mission statement. Every constituency gets a say.

“I like this as the mission of CASA: positive social change,” Torres says.

He also wants to spell out the aims for CASA’s influence: “White House. Homeland Security. Congress.”

The controversial crusader turns out to be the consummate organization man — and in this sense Torres is apt to be found nowhere and everywhere.

He works with a board of directors and a flow chart of committees drawn from immigrant communities across Maryland. He’s the kind of boss who knows how much he doesn’t know and has compensated by attracting a team of true-believing organizers, fundraisers, lawyers and specialists who are the envy of liberal nonprofits in the region. They are the fearsome watchdog, while Torres is somewhere holding a long leash.

Alumni of CASA’s board include Cecilia Munoz, White House director of intergovernmental affairs, and Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Torres doesn’t always get his way. The final draft of the mission statement — still subject to community approval — mentions creating a more just society, not positive social change.

But the onward march from CASA’s narrow origins to something much broader is all Torres.

“My goal is to build 200,000 members in the next five years,” he says, in his small office, a converted servant’s bedroom in the mansion. Someday, he plans to “build a powerful ... movement of immigrants and other minorities including the African American community to fight for justice — and they decide what justice means.”

He is exploring possible expansions to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and to Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

To go with his office, Torres earns a salary of $86,000, according to CASA’s tax filings. That’s less than the directors of organizations with similar budgets, and Torres has refused raises, says board president Simon Bautista Betances, canon for Latino ministries in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

CASA’s workers also put in long hours for not enough pay, according to their union. Employees gave up a 4 percent raise a year ago, when CASA faced a budget crunch. Torres says that CASA workers enjoy fully funded health insurance and that money is tight because government and foundation support has been cut in the economic downturn.

The union exudes tough love for the union organizer turned boss.

Paul Reilly, a representative of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild (which bargains for workers at several nonprofits, as well as Washington Post employees) says: “Sometimes, it seems Gustavo looks at the big picture of the immigrant community and ... doesn’t pay attention to some of the things going on with employees of CASA itself. ”

* * *

Torres spots Gov. Martin O’Malley having lunch in Galway Bay, a popular pub near the State House.

“Gustavo, how are you, que pasa?” O’Malley says.

The battle over the Dream Act has come down to a desperate scramble for every last vote. Torres asks the governor to make phone calls to a couple of wavering delegates.

“Adelante” — “Forward” — O’Malley says as Torres departs.

Sitting in the gallery of the House, Torres listens to Del. McDonough deliver his stemwinder against the bill.

“Maryland is becoming Disneyland for illegals. ... Now there are 300,000 illegals in Maryland. When do you reach sticker shock? ... They are not fighting for civil rights, they are fighting for civil wrongs. ...”

Ten hours before adjournment for the year, the bill is on life support.

Democratic leaders quickly craft a compromise that toughens the requirement that students or their parents must have filed Maryland tax returns. Torres holds a meeting with the students in the main concourse of the State House. He wants to know if they will accept the compromise.

“Yes,” says Dulce, 17, a Prince George’s County high school junior originally from Guatemala. “That would help to win the votes.”

It’s a strange moment. Asking undocumented teenagers for permission to pursue a political course?

Torres had to ask. He was thinking of the Nicaraguan campesinos who wanted to grow beans, not rice, and the day laborers who so prized driver’s licenses. “The most important thing is to listen to our community,” he says later.

With three hours to spare, the Dream Act passes the Senate 27-19, and the House 74-65.

Whoops and applause break out in the House chamber.

McDonough, unyielding, looks ahead to a petition drive to try to force a referendum in 2012. (State elections officials will certify on July 22 whether the effort is successful.)

Outside, Torres, the students and their key allies — religious congregations organized by the Industrial Areas Foundation — hold hands in a circle and take turns groping for words to express the meaning of this moment.

“I feel like we are making history,” Torres says.

But he seems subdued. He takes a longer view.

The Dream Act is symbolically huge, he knows, one of the few pro-immigrant bills passed anywhere in the country this year. And yet, at most, it will benefit just a few hundred students annually.

Torres hugs his fellow activists in the warm night illuminated by the glowing State House. Then he reminds them that nearly 400,000 people were deported last fiscal year and many more need help here. “We have a big agenda that we still need to keep fighting for,” he says. “But for now, let’s go celebrate.

“Are you ready?”

David Montgomery is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at montgomery@washpost.com. Staff researchers Magda Jean-Louis and Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.

 
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