Hispanic services organization moves into York City Hall

Sean Philip Cotter

A local chapter of a national Hispanic services organization officially moved into York City Hall on Tuesday, looking to provide services some community members and city officials say sometimes aren't the easiest to find for the 30 percent or so of the city that speaks Spanish.

Sorelis Rodriguez, 3, front, and Frailin Leonardo, 7, both of York City, wait for York City Mayor Kim Bracey before a ribbon-cutting ceremony welcoming CASA, an immigrant services organization, into their new location at York City Hall on Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The organization CASA cut a big ribbon on the second floor of City Hall, 101 S. George St., after York Mayor Kim Bracey hosted a news conference Tuesday morning announcing the city's partnership with the group.

"We will be able to meet the needs of our new American population," she said.

Gustavo Torres, the executive director of the national organization, stood beside the mayor as she spoke, translating what she said into Spanish. When she was done, he took the podium, speaking in English before repeating in Spanish.

He said the goal of the York branch of CASA, which moved into the City Hall space recently vacated by state Rep. Kevin Schreiber's office, aims to help provide "basic services to the Latino community." That includes English-language and financial-literacy classes, immigration services and voter registration, which he particularly focused on.

"We believe that is very important," he told the cheerful audience in the mostly full council chambers room.

About CASA: CASA is a national organization whose mission is "to create a more just society by building power and improving the quality of life in low-income immigrant communities."

Andrew Reinel, who will be working out of the City Hall offices, said the organization's plans are "two pronged": It's aiming to help on a local level by providing services and also looking to participate in the political process

In Pennsylvania, you have to be in this country legally to get a driver's license. Reinel said his organization is pushing to change that by taking part in rallies, and also, as Torres said, by getting Hispanic folks who can vote registered to do so.

"When people don't vote, they're leaving power on the table," he said.

Diverse: He said he's noticed York City's Hispanic cohort is diverse and therefore has an equally wide-ranging gamut of needs. There are people here both legally and illegally from Central American countries, who need help learning English, as well as assistance with immigration law.

CASA member Leobigilda Castro, left on device screen, of York City, is assisted with interpretation by CASA Community Organizer Andrew Reinel, during a press conference welcoming immigrant service organization CASA into their new location at York City Hall in York City, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

But there's also a large Puerto Rican population who are all United States citizens. They don't need any immigration help, so Reinel said the main focus with that group is voter registration.

In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, the census estimated that more than 21 percent of the city’s residents 5 and older speak Spanish. And of those Spanish speakers, more than 44 percent “speak English less than ‘very well.’”

In York County, 10.3 percent of people live below the poverty line, according to the census; in the city, that number is 37.9 percent. The census says 23.5 percent of non-Hispanic white people in the city are below the poverty line. That’s compared with 42.4 percent of black people in the city.

And Hispanics are more likely than not to be below the poverty line: 52.4 percent of Hispanics of any race in York City fall under that mark.

'Very excited': Jose Colon, the president of the Spanish American Center in York City, was looking forward to CASA establishing a presence in York City.

"I am very very excited, very very happy that they’re coming," he said.

At center left, CASA Executive Director Gustavo Torres and York City Mayor C. Kim Bracey welcomes immigrant service organization CASA into their new location at York City Hall during a press conference in York City, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Colon, who's originally from Puerto Rico, said he's observed one big void that needs to be filled in terms of what services are available to Spanish-speaking countries is legal representation, especially for immigration law. He said he only knows of one attorney in the York area — Stephen Converse — who works on immigration law. And though Colon said Converse speaks Spanish and is a good attorney who has a solid reputation in the Hispanic community, he's a white guy, so some Hispanic folks might not feel as comfortable going to him for immigration issues, he said.

Colon said he knows CASA has several Hispanic immigration lawyers in the Baltimore branch, so he hopes that service becomes available here, too.

Bracey said services for Hispanic people have been "hit or miss" — places such as the Spanish American Center have provided valuable services, she said, but they're not all-encompassing. As she spoke in the news conference, she said she hopes this government-nonprofit initiative will be a big benefit "to new Americans."

Torres translated that to "a nuevos Americanos" before adding "a ustedes" — to you, addressing the audience.

And then Torres turned to the mayor, and further dropped translating to say: "Por eso, muchas gracias" — for this, thank you very much.

She answered in kind: "Muchos gracias."

— Reach Sean Cotter atscotter@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at@SPCotterYD.