July 21, 2010

CASA de Maryland slips into politics

CASA de Maryland, the immigration advocacy group that collects millions of dollars in taxpayer money, has started a political organization to back pro-Hispanic candidates that critics contend blurs the line between nonprofit work and political activism. Dubbed CASA in Action, the group sent out surveys to politicians in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and will endorse primary candidates who promote Hispanic causes. Among the questions: Whether candidates support giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, whether English should be the official state language, and whether office seekers would push for more funding for Hispanic nonprofits.

"It allows immigrants and low-income people in Maryland to come together and express their political priorities," said spokeswoman Eliza Leighton. But some say the group's foray into politics should preclude it from receiving taxpayer money.

"I think the era of CASA being a service entity is over," said Brad Botwin, director of Help Save Maryland, an anti-illegal-immigration group. "I think we need to stop giving them any funds. Other groups can do the same work without promoting lawlessness."

CASA will receive nearly $2.1 million this fiscal year from local governments, including $1.3 million from Montgomery County, and another $32,000 in federal money, according to Kim Propeack, the group's director of community organizing and political action. CASA in Action has raised $45,000 thus far from members paying $9 annual dues, she added. Botwin argues the group, for years, has raked in millions of taxpayer dollars despite ignoring -- and often embracing -- illegal immigration. CASA runs five day laborer sites in Maryland, offering services regardless of immigration status.

CASA officials responded that the new wing of the organization is funded entirely by member donations. CASA's top brass, including Executive Director Gustavo Torres, are running the political operation and have not hired new employees for the political team. Propeack says human-service organizations have made similar plunges into politics. She referenced the Tenants and Workers United, the largest member-based organization for low-income workers in Northern Virginia, as the local model for such a move. Like CASA, the group canvases against what it considers overly harsh raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and supports day laborers throughout the region.

Nonprofit legal analysts tell The Washington Examiner that CASA is not in violation of federal law if they don't use government money for political purposes and note the time spent between the two wings of the organization. However, some officials involved in recent immigration debates say the coziness between the group's two branches could make it difficult to track sources of political funding.

"They need to be transparent about how they raise their money," said Prince William County Supervisor Marty Nohe, R-Coles. "It'd be hard to know for sure they aren't raising money from illegitimate sources." CASA was previously barred from intervening in political campaigns, according to Internal Revenue Service code. But by obtaining 501(c)(4) status, CASA in Action is allowed to participate in political campaigns and elections. SOURCE: Washington Examiner

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