Maryland lawmakers threaten leading immigrant advocacy group for urging Gaza ceasefire

The retribution from state lawmakers was swift and severe after Gustavo Torres, the executive director of CASA de Maryland, posted a tweet and statement on November 6, calling out Israel’s “terror” against Gaza and urging a ceasefire. Outrage and threats rained down from donors and politicians against the largest immigrant rights group in the Mid-Atlantic region. 

Deeply alarmed, CASA took down the post the same day. In its place, a terse apology was posted acknowledging the “hurt” caused to “our dear and trusted partners” and promising a “new statement in the days to come.” That wasn’t apology enough for nine state senators, the entire delegation from Montgomery County (Maryland’s most prosperous and populous). They issued a blistering statement on November 8, with a clear threat to cut funding vital to CASA’s mission of providing services to struggling immigrants and other vulnerable populations. 

In his retracted statement, Torres had asserted that “CASA stands in resolute and steadfast solidarity with the people of Palestine in their relentless fight for freedom” and accused Israel of pursuing the “systematic ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.” He also emphasized the importance of the issue to “Black and brown communities in the United States” and to many CASA members, including himself, who fled persecution in countries subject to “U.S. economic and political intervention.”

In their response, the senators charged that CASA and Torres had been “hurtful, divisive, and antisemitic.” Their “dismay” was particularly great, they said, because they had “provided CASA with millions of taxpayer dollars” to furnish new immigrants with “necessities and shelter” and had worked closely with Torres, who has led CASA since 1994 and helped build it into a major partner with governments in Virginia and Pennsylvania, as well as Maryland. 

“When we say hate has no home here, we must mean it,” the senators wrote. “We cannot and will not allow taxpayer money to subsidize hate speech,” they continued, before making their threat: “In light of CASA’s recent postings and statements, this might be an appropriate time to reevaluate the state’s mechanism for providing financial aid and support to our immigrant community. . . . we must ensure that public funds are not being used to promote antisemitism and Jewish hate.” Their financial leverage over CASA is enormous, as more than half of its funding comes from government grants and contracts, according to a 2021 tax filing. 

The politicians may not have considered, however, that their threat arguably infringed on CASA’s First Amendment rights and thus could expose them to potential litigation if they cut funding, as some commentators suggested. But Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Rockville), who reportedly led the response to CASA, didn’t back off, stating on November 10 that CASA’s original statement was “unforgivable.” “There’s no apology that’s sufficient,” she told Maryland Matters, a blog that covers Maryland government and politics. Kagan did not return Mondoweiss calls to her and her office.

Nonetheless, CASA posted a fuller apology on November 16, signed by Torres. Gone were flourishes he included in his initial statement, such as, “We firmly assert: free Palestine NOW!”; gone was the word “ceasefire.” Instead, he confessed: “Our message was flawed, diminishing of Israeli people, hurtful to many of our Jewish allies, and counter to our goals of advancing peace,” adding that CASA “should have done deeper work to understand the crisis and the ways in which language is understood by people much closer to the situation.” This was a far cry from November 6, when he rejected “the notion that any act of violence [read the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel] can ever justify the heinous practice of terror currently unleashed by Israel in Gaza.” The November 16 apology did not go so far as to condone Israel’s Gaza offensive, however.

Meanwhile, others had come to CASA’s defense. More than 60 organizations signed a letter demanding that the Maryland senators retract their statement of November 8. They charged the lawmakers with, among other things, threatening not just CASA but “thousands of immigrants and low-income communities that rely on CASA’s safety net and advocacy services.” 

Jewish organizations also weighed in against the senators, including Jews United for Justice, a large Maryland grassroots group, which refused to back away from plans to honor CASA with a Heschel Vision Award at its 25th-anniversary banquet November 19. A group of Jewish organizers and activists in Maryland also wrote in Maryland Matters to express “outrage that elected officials are weaponizing Jewish pain in the wake of the recent atrocities by Hamas to attack and undermine CASA in response to its tweets criticizing Israel and calling for a ceasefire.” They noted that “across America, people criticizing Israel have been harassed, threatened, and fired from their jobs,” and blasted the elected officials for “joining in this McCarthy-like behavior.” 

Moreover, they said, “Some of these officials are Jewish, but we emphatically reject any assumption that they speak for all Jews in Maryland — they do not.” Finally, they suggested that the attacks on CASA “do not reflect authentic disagreements, but are political opportunism . . . to weaken a bold, immigrant-led organization that has at times differed with some of these policymakers on critical issues like rent stabilization, healthcare expansion, and immigration detention.” They demanded the officials retract their statements “to make clear that CASA’s funding will be safe.”

The ACLU of Maryland weighed in on November 15 to declare that the senators’ statement violated CASA’s free speech rights: “Publicly threatening to defund an organization because of its political position is exactly the kind of viewpoint discrimination that the Constitution forbids.” Moreover, the senators “directly threaten[ed] collective punishment of the immigrant community” that CASA serves,” ACLU wrote, adding that their “claims to allyship with the immigrant community ring false, as no true advocate for the rights of Maryland immigrants would condition support on silence and compulsory allegiance to the government’s opinions.” After citing key Supreme Court cases supporting their argument, the civil libertarians concluded by warning, “Make no mistake, if retaliatory action is taken to defund the essential services that CASA provides to the immigrant community, we will respond accordingly.”

As this altercation plays out, one might wonder if Torres and CASA wish they had never publicly expressed their solidarity with the anguish of Gaza. On the other hand, given the backlash to the senators’ threats – and their potential legal liability — it seems that Torres and CASA may have come out ahead: Speaking as respected humanitarians, they forcefully accused Israel of perpetrating a “heinous practice of terror,” and called for a recognition of Israel’s “historic oppression [of Palestinians] that demands urgent redress.” While they went on to meekly endure the tongue-lashings of Israel’s powerful backers in the Senate, that itself was a vivid demonstration of abuse of power by Israel’s Maryland friends in high places. The final irony is that CASA finds itself, perhaps, in a stronger position than before October 7 to fend off legislative funding cuts.

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