Mi CASA es su CASA: Latino organization opens in new York City home

The word "casa" in Spanish means "home," and that's what York City's CASA hopes to be for its Latino community.

For many Yorkers, it's been a refuge.

"I think the word CASA is so appropriate ... especially with 'Dreamers' and people seeking the type of services (CASA provides), they want to go to a place that they feel safe," said Delma Rivera, who serves on the governor's Commission on Latino Affairs.

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Formerly housed in York City Hall, the immigrant rights advocacy organization on Thursday, May 3, celebrated the opening of its new home in York City, at 225 E. Princess St. — an important step in reaching those who need it the most.

Latino organization CASA cuts the ribbon on its new home at 225 E. Princess St., in York City, Thursday, May 3, 2018.

Gino Salazar, a volunteer with the organization, echoed those sentiments, adding that the move brings CASA to the heart of the community — in a city with a large Latino population.

"We know that beyond the noise, real relationships between good neighbors are being created every day in cites like York, Lancaster, Harrisburg and beyond," said Gustavo Torres, executive director for CASA in Maryland.

"It is our strength of working together as one community that will get us through," he said.

Latino organization CASA cuts the ribbon on its new home at 225 E. Princess St. Thursday, May 3, 2018.

One home to another: CASA's welcome into the city is bittersweet for some, as it marks the end of a 40-year tradition.

Centro Hispano José Hernández, originally on South Queen Street — not far from CASA's new home — was a refuge for immigrants coming to the city.

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Members from the center worked with CASA as it grew out of its City Hall office.

And knowing the organization had the resources for a bright future, Centro Hispano offered to sell one of its buildings to CASA, center organizer Jose Colon-Bones said.

As part of the agreement, the center dissolved in January.

But Centro Hispano organizers will continue to be a part of the city's aid to Latinos, with Colon-Bones joining the CASA board of directors and Jose Santiago joining the board of CASA in Action, the organization's political arm.

Rivera shared the story of her parents' journey to York City to open the center 40 years ago, adding that she's glad their legacy will end up in such good hands with CASA.

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"The dream that my parents had is now going to help the 'Dreamers,'" she said, emotionally.

Community response: CASA members and volunteers shared their enthusiasm for the move.

Lead organizer Laila Martin translated for longtime member Carmen Perez.

"It's a big difference," Perez said, via Martin. "I feel really happy, because this is our space."

"This is the first time she feels she is being represented," Martin said on behalf of Perez.

Elena Aguilar, owner of Variedades Latinas in York City, spoke in support of CASA, saying as an immigrant from El Salvador on Temporary Protected Status since 1999, she is grateful for the help she's received.

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Latino organization CASA cuts the ribbon on its new home at 225 E. Princess St. Thursday, May 3, 2018.

"I know we're gonna keep growing," she said of the organization.

Having an office downtown in the heart of the city's large Latino population will give the organization more visibility and accessibility, Martin said.

As more people come, CASA can tailor its services to what's needed. For example, organizers recently launched an initiative to help those displaced from Puerto Rico after the region's devastating hurricanes.

More:CASA launches bilingual tax service for Latinos in York

History: CASA has always gone to where the people are, Martin said, noting, "This is how we were born."

The first location opened in 1985 near Washington, D.C., in response to an influx of refugees in the area who had been displaced from Central America.

CASA's regional director, Elizabeth Alex, said after getting many calls and hearing there was a need, CASA took the steps to establish additional homes — opening in Baltimore in 2005 and York City in 2015.

After operating out of a couple local churches, CASA found a home in York City Hall.

"When Washington failed us, local government picked up the pieces," Torres said. "Our members are welcome at the City Hall."

In action: CASA is the Mid-Atlantic's largest immigrant-rights advocacy organization, with 100,000 members, according to a news release, and a couple thousand in York City, Torres said.

During its short time in York City, CASA has helped more than 3,800 people register to vote and more than 150 become U.S. citizens, he said.

The organization recently teamed up with SpiriTrust Lutheran to offer billingual volunteers for tax assistance. 

All services, such as citizenship classes, financial literacy, social services and civic engagement, are provided free to the community, with an option to pay as a member.

“CASA’s presence in York has been so helpful for our community especially during these trying times when there is so much uncertainty," county resident and CASA member Martha Hernandez stated in the release.

More:CASA pushing Latino voter turnout in York County

Meet CASA: Alex said, in the spirit of getting to know the community, the organization is hosting a fair Saturday, May 12, to provide the best opportunity everyone to meet CASA.

It will focus on economic empowerment, acting as a job fair with resources on worker's rights and legal issues, but there will be plenty for kids and families, too.

Activities, music and cultural performances will accompany the fair, from noon to 4 p.m. at the nearby Renaissance Park, in the 200 block of East Princess Street. 

Earlier in the day, residents can come to a public roundtable at CASA with candidates for the 10th Congressional District who are interested in hearing directly from the York County Latino population.

Above all, CASA hopes the community will feel welcome, as Torres ended on a familiar phrase, "Mi casa es su casa."