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.


CASA in Action's Political Survey   »  Would you support the return of driver's licenses for residents of Maryland, regardless of immigration status? »  Nonprofits provide a significant percentage of services to immigrant and Latino communities. If elected, would you support increased funding for nonprofit agencies filling these critical gaps? »  Our communities suffer from inadequate police protection and aggravated experiences of police abuse. What additional measures will you support to provide police protection free from abuse? »  Will you support policies, such as tenant right of first refusal and rent control, to ensure that tenants and small businesses are not displaced and that the jobs created by [future transportation] projects are targeted to low-income residents surrounding the Metro line? »  In light of the recent law passed by Arizona regarding undocumented immigrants, do you support any increased measures by our state to follow suit? »  Do you support or oppose efforts to make English the official language of Maryland?


Organizers for CASA in Action expect to make serious political headway in local and state races, citing the "enormous unrealized potential of the Latino vote."

Roughly 15 percent of Montgomery County's 1 million residents and nearly 13 percent of the Prince George's County population are Hispanic, according to census data-- both twice as high as the state average. Detractors contend the number is even higher when illegal immigrants are included.

Montgomery County officials say the political development will have no effect on their financial support for the organization.

"Whether you agree or disagree with CASA's advocacy on other issues, these services are meeting critical needs," said Patrick Lacefield, spokesman for County Executive Ike Leggett, pointing to the three day laborer centers in the county and the group's health outreach and English language instruction.

In addition to the seven-figure allocation from Montgomery County taxpayers to CASA, the Maryland House of Delegates approved $200,000 recently for the group to open a 21,000-square-foot Multicultural Service Center in Langley Park.

CASA will host political debates and voter registration drives in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, as well as the Baltimore area. The new political coalition claims 5,000 members and expects to grow to 20,000 by the end of the year.