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Published: July 14, 2011, Washington Post Magazine. Gustavo Torres everywhere and nowhere, like air, essential quality for movement man. Tonight, also makes him the perfect anxious host, dressed plain suit and tie that help him disappear. chats this cluster guests here, reappears that new clump visitors there, then surfaces again another room altogether -until everyone feels home one the great mansions suburban Washington. "Welcome CASA; this your house!" says, opening his arms wide Jay Gatsby beckoning friends into dream come true. This not Gatsby crowd, however, nibbling spanakopita after crossing the Ionic portico -even the three-story red brick Georgian Revival pile was built swells the Jazz Age. These are swaggering honchos Big Labor, mingling with like-minded politicians, soft-spoken clergy, cunning idealists who hard-bargain behalf night cleaners, and simple residents the teeming garden apartments visible outside every window the mansion -which set like mirage hill the heart the struggling immigrant barrio that got its name from the mansion: Langley Park. They have been summoned this winter evening the new home CASA 'Maryland, where Torres executive director. CASA's previous casa was construction trailer, until Torres drove the 3.8 million rehab the abandoned estate. "This has got the snazziest office any immigrant-rights organization the country," says Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer the Service Employees International Union. "The people who started this plantation, only they had known would become the People's home." The guests move from the dark wood-paneled grand salon equally elegant reception room. There's subtext anticipation for the Maryland legislative session, when Torres will help lead coalition pushing allow undocumented Maryland high school graduates pay in-state college tuition. But why stop there? "I've started lobby Gustavo," Medina says. "Are you just CASA Maryland? How about CASA the East? CASA the United States?" Torres squints bashfully. matter fact, has been thinking along similar lines. His own immigrant journey not over yet. the peak his influence, the cusp his greatest legislative victory -albeit one that being diluted populist backlash. Suddenly giddy band mariachis bursts into the salon. The halls old Langley Park brim with the brassy, sassy sound Mexico. Torres's admirers can sound fawning, but there's equally fervid crowd convinced that evil genius. Republican state Del. Pat McDonough could spokesman. When McDonough, businessman and talk radio host, won seat the House Delegates 2002 from Baltimore County, immigration wasn't his radar. Then, got Annapolis, where discovered Torres and CASA everywhere: engaged and getting stronger. "What the heck this all about?" McDonough said himself. Since then, McDonough has become leading foe. Chief among critics' concerns that nearly half CASA's million budget comes from local, state and federal appropriations, and that CASA uses significant portion that money help illegal immigrants. The renovation the mansion, where CASA provides services "Gustavo has created sanctuary state," McDonough says. "The governor does his bidding. The politicians who control power the State Maryland his _____ bidding._._.._And his_success has caused fina_pcial ang_prsonal heartbreak for the- State Maryland." McDonough just warming up. "Gustavo Torres more than just Maryland figure," says. "They are globally sign,ificant organization." true that the two decades since arrived the United States, Torres, 50, has transformed himself into regional political power and nationally pivotal character the endless passion play over immigration. hardly global player, however. What's remarkable the degree which one man -especially someone outwardly self-effacing-inspires such hyperbolic reactions. rival for Che Guevara T-shirt. His features are soft and round, his manner mild. Married, with children, sings sentimental karaoke tangos and plays soccer with bunch other over-40 guys. Sure, can deliver fiery speech. But his magnetism appears even more effective subtler frequencies. "I've known Gustavo for about years, and the early days our relationship, there was little bit tension," says Gregg Clickstein, president Sawyer Realty Holdings, which owns apartment units Maryland and used own the Langley Park mansion. Torres and CASA organized Sawyer's tenants Langley Park rally protest apartment conditions. "So, Gustavo and end over bowl pickles the Parkway Deli," Clickstein says. "He starts talking about his vision for CASA. What was interesting was, Gustavo was really talking about America. This nation immigrants ... and this new wave immigrants, and having the opportunity assimilate and great Americans. And really just touched me." CASA for $1. Every May Medellin, Colombia, Antonio Torres, carpenter, led his family the worker-soiidarity parades. Thousands promenaded from across the city rally Parque Berrio. Gustavo, the second-youngest son brothers and sisters, would never forget the exhilaration. help make erids meet, Ilumina otagria would rise before dawn cook empanadas that Gustavo and his siblings would hawk the streets. Just being alive Medellin the 1970s and 1980s was political education. Liberal and leftist activists decried poverty and inequality. Conservatives power had little patience for even nonviolent protest. Pablo Escobar's flourishing cocaine empire added another layer instability. After high school, Gustavo enrolled accounting apprenticeship program, which sent him work bank, where became union organizer. "Even back then, the phrase used say was, 'We all have rights the community, but also, all have duties the community,' says his older sister Martha Torres. earned enough the bank pay for university and join friend opening small taverna, called Mama Vieja, Old Mama, which became hangout for student activists. 1987, things turned savage. Students, professors and union organizers were murdered disappeared. Torres and his friends heard that their names were "la lista negra," though they never saw the notorious death list. Torres, then 26, and fellow student and union leader, Guillermo Useche, decided get out town. Torres gave Mama Vieja his younger brother, Gabriel Jaime, university student who volunteered poor barrios. Several weeks later, Gabriel Jaime was opening the taverna, strangers arrived. They shot him multiple times. died the way the hospital. Nobody was arrested. Torres and Useche lit out for Nicaragua. The pair got jobs with Tayacan, weekly newspaper that supported the Sandinista revolution. Torres also worked European-funded study Sandinista land reform, which sent him into rural areas interview campesinos. "He was simple and sweet, knew how talk all kinds people and immediately they liked him," Useche says. The campesinos made deep impression when they grumbled that the revolutionary planners should have consulted them before ordering them grow rice, instead more practical coffee beans. the time the Sandinistas were voted out power 1990, Torres says was love with American, Lois Wessel, who was working public health project Managua. Wessel suggested they move the United States she could pursue nursing degree. Torres and Wessel came Washington 199 and got married. Torres arrived tourist visa, then applied for work authorization and green card. His marriage smoothed his path citizenship 1995, says. and Wessel were divorced late 1996, but both say they remain good terms. "This the country chose live in," says. "But didn't choose quiet, and not push for changes. "If did these kinds things Colombia, I'd have been killed long time ago." Torres's first job the United States was painting houses. Controversy was boiling Langley Park. many 150 day laborers congregated daily the corner University Boulevard and Piney Branch Road seek work. Solidarity and Assistance, CASA for short, hired Torres 1991 help organize the day laborers. "He was just amazing personality, charismatic, energetic, and somebody who just had this real-life organizing experience,says Earish, who suggested Torres her successor 1994. "He's big-picture thinker, and organizers aren't always." Today's English lesson how order food. About two dozen laborers painstakingly enunciate their favorite dishes. Chicken, pizza, Burger King. The early morning class Shady Grove construction trailer drawing close when Torres bounds in. "Shall talk English?" teases. The effort pass the in-state tuition bill -informally known the Maryland Dream Act -has reached critical stage. Torres wants enlist workers for lobby blitz. "Who's coming Annapolis?" asks Spanish. Everybody! "Who knows what 'to lobby' means?" Nobody. civics lesson ensues. "The Republicans want make Maryland like Arizona," says. "We need show that Maryland different from other states." Torres's over-simple portrayal Republicans enemies and Democrats friends immigration prompts worker raise his hand. see the president Democrat, and now when immigrants have felt the most oppression," the man says. Later, marvels the worker's political acumen. was protecting the president little bit, and the worker confronts and says, h.ell!" orres During White House meeting March 10, Torres urged President Obama focus more deporting criminals. Now, Torres detects disenchantment with Obama going viral among Latinos, and the activist mulling plan for mass arrests front the White House later this month. The scene Shady Grove crystallizes Torres's crusade. Transforming poor immigrants into job holders into English students into advocates their own behalf -that's what it's all about. wasn't obvious goal. When became director, CASA's budget was less than $500,000, the staff numbered five, the office was church basement. Torres launched excursions Annapolis. Poor immigrants treading the marble corridors was unprecedented. "He instills courage," says Herminia Servat, grandmother from Peru who came CASA 1999 for help finding job. She got construction position and joined the first lobbying trips Annapolis. felt important. was transformed." Sometimes Torres stumbled. decade ago, was presenting his legislative agenda sweltering community meeting Takoma Park. was full high ideas those know-it-all leaders the Sandinista revolution. Affordable housing! Health care! "One the workers said, 'With all due respect, this not priority for us,' Torres recalls. thought, health care, housing, not priority!?" No, said the worker. "Our priority driver's license." basic, and Torres had missed it. CASA turned its focus the issue obtaining and keeping driver's licenses; under later compromise, undocumented immigrants who had licenses 2009 can keep them until 2015. teachers; and CASA has 10,000 members who pay $25 annual dues. Its five centers Prince George's and Montgomery counties and Baltimore City filled Those workers earned $2.6 million the last six months. CASA lawyers closed 108 cases. Torres also created parallel nonprofit, CASA Action, direct political work and endorse candidates, with budget $100,000 funded without taxpayer dollars. "Immigration reform won't happen, and the Latino community will not come age politically, until there are Gustavo Torreses," says Frank Sharry, founder America's Voice, national immigrant advocacy group. "He's pioneer what historians will write about the immigrant-led Latino movement, for whom immigration reform akin the big civil rights legislation the 1960s for the African American community." Critics complain that because CASA serves low-income immigrants without regard legal status, inevitably assists thousands illegal immigrants, part with taxpayer money. "Why taxpayers are subsidizing organization that appears systematically working promote, encourage, accommodate and reward illegal behavior?" says Dan Stein, president the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Washington-based group that favors restricting legal and illegal immigration. addition government money, more than half CASA' annual budget over the years has come from member dues and corporations and foundations such the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, Bank America, Wachovia Bank and Citgo. Torres argues that makes moral and practical sense help people who are building lives here.,Though never lacked legal papers, when meets "What inspires what I've seen for the last years: people who lack opportunities, here Colombia," says. But "they keep fighting for justice." cooler's worth whole tilapia sizzles oil the kitchen stove, while platter crisp and salty fried green plantains -patacones, Colombian-style -and pitcher pisco sours are passed among the dozen guests this Saturday night casa Torres-Mora quiet lane Silver Spring. Sonia Mora, whom Torres married 2002, the charmingly serene foil Torres's frenetically ubiquitous host routine. male Colombian colleague Torres's does the cooking -for this actually office party. Mora worries that work and play are too often the same thing for her overextended husband "This not job for him; it's sort like calling that has," she says later. "Part what see my, quote, mission his partner kind help him step away from work sometimes. needs think about himself." She the manager Montgomery County's Latino Health Initiative. hobby, she plays guitar band called Caf Caribe. Colombian immigrant like her husband, she met Torres the 1990s when she provided HIV education the day laborers. "If you knew his mom" -Ilumina -"she was such incredibly compassionate person," Mora says. "When Gustavo was growing up, and they were struggling times with many kids, she always managed have the extra plate for someone else ... think has always carried that." the middle the Annapolis legislative session, Ilumina died. She was 86. (Antonio had died years earlier.) Torres returned Medellin for the funeral and the first gathering his union comrades since they scattered for their lives years ago. does something subtly her honor. She had beautiful voice, and just there was always singing house parties back Medellin, there Silver Spring. Torres connects laptop and microphone speakers and logs onto karaoke Web tangos, boleros, folk songs, love songs until past a.m. One ofllumina's favorites was wistful waltz called "El Camino Vida" "The Path Life." It's about falling love, having children, watching the children move far away. She would sing Torres over the phone. She would cry, then laugh -sad left, glad could his work safer environment. Torres and Mora have worked performance that song but are saving it. Then, week after the party, memorial service Washington for Ilumina, Torres stands the front the church dark suit while Mora plucks her guitar. rich tenor, his eyes watery, the son who went away sings "El Camino Vida." Torres and nine colleagues sit around conference tables the mansion's former dining room, "dreaming together" about the future. his left-handed scrawl, jots notes himself, including "positive social change." It's part elaborately earnest process this summer draft CASA's five-year plan and retool its mission statement. Every constituency gets say. like this the mission CASA: positive social change," Torres says. also wants spell out the aims for CASA's influence: "White House. Homeland Security. Congress." The controversial crusader turns out the consummate organization man and this sense Torres apt found nowhere and everywhere. works with board directors and flow chart committees drawn from immigrant communities across Maryland. He's the kind boss who knows how much doesn't know and has compensated attracting team true-believing organizers, fundraisers, lawyers and specialists who are the envy liberal somewhere holding long leash. Alumni CASA's board include Cecilia Munoz, White House director intergovernmental affairs, and Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights. Torres doesn't always get his way. The final draft the mission statement -still subject community approval -mentions creating more just society, not positive social change. But the onward march from CASA's narrow origins something much broader all Torres. "My goal build 200,000 members the next five years," says, his small office, converted servant's bedroom the mansion. Someday, plans "build powerful ... movement immigrants and other minorities including the African American community fight for justice -and they decide what justice means." exploring possible expansions the Eastern Shore Maryland, and Virginia, Pennsylvania andDelaware. with his office, Torres earns salary $86,000, according CASA's tax filings. That's less than the directors organizations with similar budgets, and Torres has refused raises, says board president Simon Bautista Betances, canon for Latino ministries the Episcopal Diocese Washington. CASA's workers also put long hours for not enough pay, according their union. Employees gave percent raise year ago, when CASA faced budget crunch. Torres says that CASA workers enjoy fully funded health insurance and that money tight because government and foundation support has been cut the economic downturn. The union exudes tough love for the union organizer turned boss. Paul Reilly, representative the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild (which bargains for workers several nonprofits, well Washington Post employees) says: "Sometimes, seems Gustavo looks the big picture the immigrant community and ... doesn't pay attention some the things going with employees CASA itself. Torres spots Gov. Martin O'Malley having lunch Galway Bay, popular pub near the State House. "Gustavo, how are you, que pasa?" O'Malley says. The battle over the Dream Act has come down desperate scramble for every last vote. Torres asks the governor make phone calls couple wavering delegates. "Adelante" -"Forward" -O'Malley says Torres departs. Sitting the gallery the House, Torres listens Del. McDonough deliver his stemwinder against the bill. "Maryland becoming Disneyland for illegals .... Now there are 300,000 illegals Maryland. When you reach sticker shock? ... They are not fighting for civil rights, they are fighting for civil wrongs ... Ten hours before adjournment for the year, the bill life support. Democratic leaders quickly craft compromise that toughens the requirement that students their parents must have filed Maryland tax returns. Torres holds meeting with the students the main concourse the State House. wants know they will accept the compromise. "Yes," says Dulce, 17, Prince George's County high school junior originally from Guatemala. "That would help win the otes." It's strange moment. Asking undocumented teenagers for permission pursue political course? Torres had ask. was thinking the Nicaraguan campesinos who wanted grow beans, not rice, and the day laborers who prized driver's licenses. "The most important thing listen our community," says later. With three hours spare, the Dream Act passes the Senate 27-19, and the House 74-65. Whoops and applause break out the House chamber. referendum 12. (State elections officials will certify July whether the effort successful.) Outside, Torres, the students and their key allies -religious congregations organized the Industrial Areas Foundation -hold hands circle and take turns groping for words express the meaning this moment. feel like are making history," Torres says. But seems subdued. takes longer view. The Dream Act symbolically huge, knows, one the few pro-immigrant bills passed anywhere the country this year. And yet, most, will benefit just few hundred students annually. Torres hugs his fellow activists the warm night illuminated the glowing State House. Then reminds them that nearly 400,000 people were deported last fiscal year and many more need help here. "We have big agenda that still need keep fighting for," says. "But for now, let's celebrate. "Are you ready?" David Montgomery Washington Post staff writer. can reached montgomery@washpost. com. Staff researchers Magda Jean-Louis and Eddy Palanza contributed this report.