Despite sometimes tense debate, Prince William County supervisors approved $5 million in state funding on a party-line vote Tuesday to allow CASA, a regional immigrant advocacy group, to open a new “welcome center” near Potomac Mills.
The funding for the welcome center will allow CASA to relocate from its existing office on Old Bridge Road to a larger facility in the Potomac Mills area sometime in late 2021 or early 2022.
“With this new facility we'll be able to provide more resources to the immigrant community and the working-class community. This is infrastructure that is sorely needed right now after this pandemic to make sure the community is receiving support,” said CASA Virginia Director Luis Aguilar.
CASA currently serves around 3,000 county residents every year.
With the new building, the organization will begin serving an additional 2,000 residents in 2022, with a target of serving 15,000 residents a year by 2025, according to their funding request submitted to the General Assembly last year.
Expanded services and resources include COVID-19 recovery and response, youth education, workforce development and vocational training – areas identified by CASA as “key factors to help spur economic growth and alleviate poverty in disadvantaged communities.”
Prince William County has among the highest immigrant population of any Virginia locality. About one-quarter of the county’s nearly 500,000 residents were born outside the United States, according to census data.
Funding for the CASA welcome center was approved by the General Assembly during the 2021 special session. It requires a dollar-for-dollar match by CASA up to $5 million. The state funds can be used by CASA for both capital and operational expenses.
Although the $5 million for the welcome center came from the state coffers, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors had to vote to accept the funding. Amid sometimes tense partisan debate, the board voted 5-3 to approve the pass-through funding during the afternoon session of its Tuesday, Sept. 7 meeting.
Supervisor Yesli Vega, R-Coles, the first Hispanic person ever elected to the county board, said she was staunchly opposed to providing any funds for the welcome center, stemming in part from CASA’s protest last summer of the county’s 287(g) agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Vega was a staunch supporter of keeping the county’s ICE agreement in place. CASA organizers protested the agreement during several board meetings last year, and publicly criticized Vega for her support of the program. The Prince William County Jail Board ultimately allowed the agreement to expire on June 30, 2020.
"The way that [CASA] members directed their comments, not just to members of this body, but to me personally, were absolutely uncalled for. The fact that they’re coming to us asking for a vote for $5 million is not something I would approve today, tomorrow or ever,” Vega said.
The board's three Republican supervisors also said they opposed the welcome center funding because of CASA’s political donations to state and local Democratic candidates.
CASA’s political action committee, CASA in Action, has donated more than $1.3 million to Democratic candidates and causes since 2015, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. The PAC donated to all five Democratic Prince William County supervisors during the 2019 election cycle.
"It looks like political patronage where, coming from the General Assembly, we’re going to funnel this money down through the board of supervisors and out to a favored organization, which I don’t think is the right thing to do,” said Supervisor Pete Candland, R-Gainesville.
Several Democratic supervisors stated their support for the welcome center. Chair Ann Wheeler, D-At-Large, said CASA has taken a “leading edge” in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in Prince William County’s “most vulnerable communities."
Supervisor Kenny Boddye, D-Occoquan, called the plans for a welcome center “a worthy cause.”
“I support this because it aims to establish a welcome center in our county that helps not only immigrants, not only the Latino community, but will help a lot of different folks throughout the community,” Boddye said.
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