Gang violence in Montgomery County, day laborers in Herndon, stabbings in Langley Park -- headlines from the past few weeks have troubled CASA of Maryland, the state's largest Latino community organization. Executive Director Gustavo Torres shared his thoughts last week with staff writer Joshua Partlow.
QHow serious is the gang violence in the Washington region, and do you see these gangs as a long-term threat to the safety of the community?
AAnytime anyone feels pressured to join a gang, change their habits . . . or move from their home because of gang violence, it is a serious problem. While gang violence in this area may not be as serious as in some other parts of the country, families and teens are still suffering, and if we do not take appropriate action now, we risk losing a generation of kids.
In your opinion, why would Latino youths want to join a gang such as Mara Salvatrucha?
Gangs provide social support to young people. Human beings, and particularly young people, organize to have a sense of community and family. Many positive groups can provide this sense of belonging -- youth clubs, religious and study groups, and tenants associations. . . . When gangs become the entities offering support to our youth and constructing community, this underscores how the rest of us have failed.
What can the Latino community do to address the problems of gang violence? What about the Montgomery County government?
Although gang violence is not a Latino phenomenon, we as Latinos need to address the problem and save our children. Immigrant Latinos come from communities that, though broken up by the economic reality of migration, may be more culturally family-oriented. We need to go back to our origins: Spend more time with our children, provide positive role models and emphasize education.
Social programs are an essential part of the mix. . . . We also need improvements in living conditions -- better wages and health insurance -- that allow parents to give up second and third jobs and instead be home to help with homework.
In Herndon, the issue of using government money to create a day-laborer center has been very divisive. What is your opinion on the issue?
In total honestly, Herndon Mayor Mike O'Reilly and his colleagues on the Town Council are national heroes. They are the best a democracy has to offer: legislators who move forward on principle rather than fluctuate in the wind. Luckily, we have the same leadership here in Maryland. Worker centers are sound solutions to local problems. The day laborers of Herndon do not helicopter in every morning; the vast majority live within 15 minutes of where they look for work. They are members of the community.
Is the strong reaction in Herndon typical? Or is there something about Herndon that creates a combustible atmosphere?
Herndon is not typical. The national anti-immigrant movement targeted Herndon. Herndon was lambasted on multiple anti-immigrant talk shows and was featured by the notoriously slanted [CNN anchor] Lou Dobbs.
We live in a dangerous period in modern United States history. We have paramilitary troops [the Minuteman Project] patrolling the border and anti-immigrant zealots emptying desert water stations in the hope that immigrants will die crossing the border. But supporting immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, is not only a human rights issue; it is an economic imperative. According to the Social Security Administration, three-fourths of undocumented immigrants pay income taxes, creating almost $7 billion annually in Social Security fund income that never gets collected and is turned into the larger pot.