Colombian Native Empowers The Undocumented In US

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In April, Gustavo Torres and others cheer as Maryland state delegates exit the floor after passing SB 167, which extends the opportunity for affordable college to the children of undocumented citizens. i

In April, Gustavo Torres and others cheer as Maryland state delegates exit the floor after passing SB 167, which extends the opportunity for affordable college to the children of undocumented citizens. Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post hide caption

itoggle caption Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post
In April, Gustavo Torres and others cheer as Maryland state delegates exit the floor after passing SB 167, which extends the opportunity for affordable college to the children of undocumented citizens.

In April, Gustavo Torres and others cheer as Maryland state delegates exit the floor after passing SB 167, which extends the opportunity for affordable college to the children of undocumented citizens.

Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post

As Congress and states try figuring out a way forward on immigration reform, Colombian native Gustavo Torres is helping legal and illegal immigrants with everything from learning English to securing work. To learn more about this endeavor, host Michel Martin speaks with Torres and writer David Montgomery, who profiled Torres for this week's The Washington Post Magazine.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: And now, we open up the pages of The Washington Post magazine, something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now. Today, we dig into a local story with echoes of the national debate that is going on around the country. The story is about a man named Gustavo Torres. He is the executive director of CASA of Maryland. That's an organization dedicated to assisting immigrants with everything from getting jobs to learning English, to legal issues.

In a few short years, under Mr. Torres' direction, CASA of Maryland has moved from being housed in a trailer to a grand headquarters in a renovated mansion, which is a fine metaphor for Mr. Torres' own influence. And Mr. Torres joins us now, along with writer David Montgomery, who profiled him for this week's Post magazine. Welcome to you both. Thank you for coming.

GUSTAVO TORRES: Thank you, Michel.

DAVID MONTGOMERY: It's great to be here.

MARTIN: David, I'm going to start with you. You write a lot of articles about the Latino Diaspora, particularly in the Washington, DC area. Why did you decide to focus on Mr. Torres?

MONTGOMERY: Well, CASA of Maryland in the last 10 or 15 years has become increasingly active and they're sort of always in the news. But the Washington Post, until now we've sort of never taken a step back and tried to look at more deeply at what exactly CASA does and what is the back story. What is the biography of this interesting man, Gustavo Torres, who's been able to build it into such a formidable regional power.

And at the same time, Gustavo is on many of the sort of national councils in the immigrant rights movement. So he's sort of both a pivotal local and national figure.

MARTIN: And your story, also, Mr. Torres, kind of encapsulates the story of many immigrants, doesn't it? Just briefly, if you can, obviously, you know, a whole article written about this, but you came from Colombia because?

TORRES: Well, actually, I went first to Central America because of the political situation in Colombia and the economic situation in Colombia. So, many left during the '80s, '90s Colombia. So I went to Central America, became a journalist for some time and then arrived to the U.S. I got married with a U.S. citizen and I am (unintelligible) here since 1991.

MARTIN: But you also - there was, how can I put this, some personal trauma there. You were, in fact, felt that you were targeted, politically, because of your - why? Because you were a university student? Just because - and that your brother was killed, in fact, in part of that, if you don't mind my mentioning that.

TORRES: Unfortunately, in Colombia, which is a beautiful country that I love so much, we have a lot of problems, including the issue of intolerance because your political beliefs and your, you know, how you feel about a union leader or a certain leader. So during that time, it was really, really, really difficult and they tried to target me and that is the reason why I left. And I was the owner of a small restaurant right over there that I passed to my little brother. And in a month and a half, two months after I left, you know, some people come to the restaurant asking for me and my brother and they kill him.

MARTIN: And I'm sorry for that.

TORRES: Thank you.

MARTIN: What was your vision for CASA of Maryland? When you took it over it was a struggling organization with just a few employees. Today it's a $6 million organization. What's your vision for it?

TORRES: Our vision is to ensure that we empowered our Latino and immigrant community in the Washington metro area. And in particular, we believe that it's very important to provide high quality services to our community. But at the same time we develop a strong component of community, organizing and advocacy. And that is exactly my vision in terms of empower the low-income immigrant community. And I think we have been pretty much successful in that.

MARTIN: And in that, you mean both the - those who are here with legal authorization and those who are here without proper authorization. Is that a fair statement?

TORRES: That is correct. Yes. Because we are very similar to another nonprofit organization like the Red Cross or Catholic charities that we welcome anybody, regardless of immigration (unintelligible). But at the same time, people who are in need - in economic need and poverty. So that is the people that we focus, mostly.

MARTIN: And that leads to a question, David Montgomery, which is something that you wrote about in your piece. Now, many people might have heard Mr. Torres' name because of his advocacy around the issue of allowing illegal immigrants, or unauthorized immigrants, to pay in-state tuition rates if they go to state colleges and universities. This evoked a huge furor. Will you talk about that?

MONTGOMERY: Yes. There are a number of critics of CASA and the work that Gustavo Torres does. They - and their criticism centers on the fact that CASA does receive about just less than half of its budget from government organizations, federal, state and local. And many of the people CASA helps, inevitably, since CASA will take all comers not asking whether or not someone's legally here, inevitably illegal immigrants will be benefited by CASA's work.

And therefore, critics will say that taxpayer dollars are being used to make life easier - teach English classes, help find jobs, help train people who are here illegally.

MARTIN: And, in fact, enabling people who have broken the law. Mr. Torres, how do you respond to that criticism?

TORRES: I mean the reality of a nonprofit organization, we are here to provide social services to our community, to advocate with our community for better life. And I believe - and that is the reason why we are very engaged on the debate of immigration reform, because the federal government needs to resolve that issue. We, as a nonprofit organization, and I believe that the local government has the responsibility to provide services to those communities who are already here.

We are speaking about 12 million immigrants who are undocumented in our nation. And I believe that we need to find a way to do it. President Obama has been proposing what they call comprehensive immigration reform to resolve that issue, once and for all. And I believe that is important that both parties come together and resolve the situation.

MARTIN: I'm curious, though, how this is playing out with you and your advocacy at the state house in Maryland - at the legislature in Maryland, where you have to talk on an ongoing basis, where people who really do believe that what you're doing is wrong. I mean they believe that what you're doing in terms of people who are legal immigrants is correct - helping people transition and function well in the society. But when it comes to your advocacy for people who are not here with proper authorization, they think you're enabling and undermining the foundations of this country, which is a nation of laws .

How do you work that? How do you manage that in your communications with people?

TORRES: It's a nation of laws and immigrants, right? So, but fortunately in Maryland, the great majority of the policymakers understand why the Latino immigrant communities are right over here, regardless of the immigration status. That is the reason why the great majority of the legislators strongly supports the Dream Act as a way of giving opportunity to those kids who don't have absolutely any responsibility to be here. Remember that those kids come when they were, like, two, three years old, right?

And now the legislators make a decision that is very, very important to give an opportunity to them because when you - remember, education is very, very essential for any community. And of course for the Latino and immigrant communities it's very, very essential. So the great majority of the legislators strongly support our community.

Of course that we have some groups on Annapolis that they are not supporting, but that is part of the debate and democratic process. We're trying to educate and explain to them how important it is and what kind of contribution our community gives to the state.

MARTIN: And, David, a final thought. We have about a minute left here. Is there something that you think, and obviously each state has its own politics. I mean, Maryland is, you know, has a very unique history. It's neither north nor south. It's right on the Mason-Dixon Line. The politics tend to lean left, so forth and so forth. It's a very Catholic state. But is there something that you think that informs the way the immigration debate might go in the rest of the country that you learned from reporting on this story?

MONTGOMERY: Well, I was surprised sort of on both sides how passionate the supporters are, clearly, in Maryland. And that was expected. Because as you say, Maryland's a blue state, a Democratic state. But this issue really gets under people's skin who are critics and they can - a very small number, three percent or six percent signed this petition to beat back Gustavo's bill. And those people are adamant and passionate. And I think until this all gets resolved, the temperature of the debate just remains boiling hot - even in Maryland where people thought it would be easier perhaps to get reforms passed.

MARTIN: To be continued, right?

MONTGOMERY: Indeed.

MARTIN: OK. David Montgomery's a staff writer for The Washington Post. He profiled Gustavo Torres, the executive director of CASA of Maryland in this week's Washington Post magazine. If you'd like to read that piece in its entirety, and we hope you will, we'll have a link to it on our website. Just go to NPR.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE. And Gustavo Torres and David Montgomery were both here with me in our D.C. studio. Thank you both so much for joining us.

MONTGOMERY: Thank you.

TORRES: Thank you for having us.

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