Aid Group to Move To Langley Park

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 1, 2007

The narrow streets of the Langley Park neighborhood are thick with trucks selling hot tortillas and pupusas. Low-slung brick apartment buildings nearby are home to thousands of low-income, largely Spanish-speaking residents.

Soon, the abandoned Georgian mansion at the heart of the 24-acre apartment complex on the border of Prince George's and Montgomery counties will be transformed into a regional headquarters for the state's largest Latino and immigration advocacy group, CASA of Maryland.

"It's more than a building," said Thomas E. Perez, Maryland's secretary of labor, licensing and regulation , a former CASA board and Montgomery County council member. "It's a place where people can walk to learn English, get health care -- a safe haven for kids after school."

The plan to create a permanent home for CASA, an anchor for non-English speakers throughout the region, is emblematic of how the group has grown with the state's immigrant population. In its 22-year history, CASA has evolved from a church basement in Takoma Park to a sophisticated $3.3 million operation with a staff of 55 and programs throughout the state.

Nearly 80 percent of the Langley Park neighborhood in Prince George's is Latino, compared with 7.1 percent countywide and 4.3 percent statewide. A total of 9.8 percent of Maryland residents are foreign-born.

At a kickoff reception last month, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) praised the planned multicultural center, calling it a "place of empowerment." In his comments, he seemed to knock former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who three years ago derided multiculturalism as "bunk."

"In these times of nativism and negativism, when some narrow few seek to denigrate any group, it is really important that we come together in projects like this," O'Malley said.

The 83-year-old McCormick-Goodhart home, with its double staircase, fireplaces and intricate molding, would be restored under the group's plan to raise $30 million and open in spring 2009. The building, donated to CASA by Sawyer Realty, will be available to several nonprofit agencies and offer English classes, in addition to health, legal and economic-development services.

"We know this is a community with a lot of problems," said Gustavo Torres, CASA's executive director. "But it has extraordinary potential."

The renovation relies on private and public funding, including contributions from local, state and federal governments. The Maryland General Assembly has provided $400,000 through bond legislation, Prince George's County has contributed $500,000, and $100,000 has come from Montgomery County.

State Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery), a former CASA board member, emphasized the importance of offering culturally appropriate services.

"An incredible number of people need services, and it's not a cookie-cutter approach," she said.

CASA works with 20,000 low-income immigrants annually and has expanded beyond its traditional Latino base as the region's population has become more diverse.

Marcel Loko, an immigrant from Benin in West Africa, was among those celebrating the project at last month's reception. He has relied on CASA for assistance in learning English and finding a job and health care.

"If you start to speak English, you can do anything you want in this country," said Loko, 45, who has a graduate degree in economics and has worked in Maryland in landscaping and cleaning.

CASA is not without critics, who oppose the use of public money to help immigrants who are in the country illegally. CASA operates Montgomery's day laborer centers in Wheaton, Silver Spring and the newest center near Gaithersburg that connect employers with immigrant workers.

Help Save Maryland, a leading opponent of the centers, issued a news release on the day of CASA's celebration, calling on the governor and county governments to withdraw financial support for the project and to instead boost spending on local schools, transportation and law enforcement.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company