At a chaotic news conference disrupted by protesters, immigrant worker-rights organization Casa Latina said Wednesday an escalating campaign against the nonprofit due to its handling of sexual misconduct allegations has created an unsafe environment and forced it to temporarily shut its doors.
Best known for dispatching day laborers and domestic workers to employers throughout the area, Casa Latina continues to do so as best it can from a location away from its Central District campus, according to Executive Director Marcos Martinez.
But a month of protests — now taking the form of an encampment and hunger strike in the central courtyard of Casa Latina’s campus — has led the organization to stop its other in-person programs, including ESL classes and food distribution.
“We’re heartbroken about the impact this is having on our community,” said board President Pilar Pacheco, adding that many immigrants depend on Casa Latina for their livelihood.
The organization typically provides thousands of jobs every year paying more than $20 an hour, Martinez said. The 25-year-old nonprofit is funded largely by private donations and government contracts and grants, including more than $626,000 of city of Seattle funding in 2020.
Martinez and Pacheco delivered their remarks in a driveway next to the South Weller Street building where they planned to have their news conference. Just as it was about to start in the offices of the immigrant advocacy group OneAmerica, Martinez announced it couldn’t go on as planned because protesters had arrived. About a dozen stood outside the entrance, holding pickets and shouting “shame!”
After moving outside, Pacheco described what she said was harassment and intimidation by protesters. Last Friday, she said, workers who arrived at Casa Latina’s campus were met by protesters who had set up tents, loudspeakers and porta-potties, blocking access to the buildings and screaming at those trying to distribute and receive job assignments.
The protesters who crashed the news conference, and eventually followed Casa Latina’s leaders outside, denied this account. “We don’t touch anybody. … We don’t say anything to workers,” said Lucina Carrillo, a staffer whose allegations against a male co-worker, and what she said was Casa Latina’s failure to take decisive action, initially prompted the protests.
Two other women have since lodged allegations against the same former co-worker, charging behavior ranging from verbal harassment to groping. Workers said the man seemed to operate with impunity because of his personal relationship with one of the organization’s leaders. Still others have complained about instances of sexual harassment and, in one case, an alleged rape involving people who come to Casa Latina to find jobs.
Workers have also made broader complaints about the organization’s leaders, citing issues such as perceived favoritism in dispatching jobs, imperious behavior, and an expectation of overtime work.
Casa Latina’s board has hired D Diamond Consulting to investigate the allegations, and has retained a mediator.
Protesters, who are calling for Casa Latina’s leaders to be fired, say they refuse to cooperate with D Diamond, citing principal Deborah Diamond’s past career with the IRS.
“The fact that you have hired someone that has worked for many years for the IRS demonstrates your lack of connection with the migrant community, who for good reasons fears giving information to government agencies like the IRS,” protesters said in a statement.
Reached by phone, Diamond said she couldn’t comment on the objection, but noted the IRS doesn’t share information with other government agencies, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She said she worked in a variety of jobs during her 33 years at the IRS, including investigating civil rights complaints.
Instead of Diamond, protesters say they want a board of survivors, day laborers, employees and community organizers to hold leaders accountable, as well as reparations for those harmed.
“We recognize that there are people who have suffered harm and a way must be found to repair that harm,” said Rufina Reyes, a leader with the immigrant activist group La Resistencia who spoke at the news conference. That way should “build, not destroy.”
“We need Casa Latina alive,” seconded Delmys Argueta, one of the roughly 220 people who come to the organization for jobs. “I think this is a personal situation that ought to be resolved between the board and the people who are affected,” the domestic worker added, calling for “third parties that have nothing to do with Casa Latina” to be kept away.
Some activists for various causes have joined the protests, including a woman who came to the news conference and said she was with the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement.
The protesters at the event went back to their encampment afterward, where they were applauded by those who had remained. One hunger striker was taken to the hospital Tuesday but has since returned, protesters said.