The Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), originally named the Central American Refugee Center, was established in 1981 and incorporated in 1982 to meet the needs of refugees fleeing a period of violence and strife in Central America. El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala all experienced civil wars during the 1980s and 1990s, and Honduras suffered more than a decade of civil strife in the form of a “dirty war.” Many Central Americans, seeking refuge from the violence in their home countries, fled to neighboring nations including Mexico and the United States.
The founders of CARECEN recognized the need for an organization to protect the rights of Central American refugees seeking shelter in Washington, D.C. from conflict in their home countries. While CARECEN was first established as a direct legal service agency, over the past three decades the organization has evolved and adapted to the current needs of Washington’s Latino community. Today our programs provide direct services in immigration, housing and citizenship while also promoting empowerment, civil rights advocacy and civic training for Latinos.
What follows is a timeline of some of the most significant moments in CARECEN’s history.
In this decade CARECEN established itself as a safe haven for Central American refugees and a hub of community education and organizing to advocate for the protection of human and civil rights. CARECEN mobilized support for the granting of refugee status to Central Americans already in the United States and began training “rights promoters” to educate the community on worker, immigrant, and tenant rights.
1981 CARECEN opened its doors to Salvadoran refugees fleeing political violence and human rights abuses in their home country.
1983 CARECEN helped create La Clínica del Pueblo, which responded to the pressing health care needs of the metro area’s new refugee population. La Clinica became an independent entity in 1995 and continues to serve Washington’s Latino community today.
1985 CARECEN played a formative role in the initial stages of Casa de Maryland, which provided emergency clothing, food, immigration assistance, and English instruction to new immigrants.
In this year the American Baptist Church (ABC) won a key suit against the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), American Baptist Church v. Thornburgh. CARECEN responded to this modest victory with an organizing and coalition development drive to advocate for suspension of deportation and permanent residency for eligible Guatemalans and Salvadorans in the “ABC class.”
1987 CARECEN helped eligible Nicaraguans re-apply for asylum through the new Nicaraguan Review Program (NRP), which gave Nicaraguans who previously had been denied asylum a second review.
During the 1990s CARECEN developed community support services to help clients with vital tasks such as filling out applications for jobs and public services. These services also helped community members translate and interpret documents and letters, initiate job searches, and obtain insurance and housing. CARECEN’s advocacy on behalf of refugees seeking asylum was especially vital in this decade, when rapidly changing immigration laws destabilized the residency statuses of many Central American immigrants.
1995 The U.S. government dissolved the Nicaraguan Review Program (NRP). With both the NRP and the ABC registration periods coming to an end, CARECEN presented a “petition for rulemaking” to the Clinton Administration. This document set the precedent for advocating on behalf of the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA).
CARECEN initiated citizenship classes to prepare eligible immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship.
1997 National advocacy efforts resulted in the successful passage of the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA), which allowed eligible Nicaraguans, Cubans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans to apply for changes in their deportation and residency statuses. CARECEN has since supported efforts to amend the Act to include a greater number of Central American refugees.
In the late 1990s CARECEN launched civic participation programs that helped community members participate in advocacy before neighborhood and city government agencies and institutions, especially on issues of immigration and civil rights.
2000 CARECEN began its Housing and Community Action Program, which helps renters in the District defend their rights as tenants.
2002 CARECEN led an effort to organize a national network of Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran community-based organizations, known as the Immigration Taskforce for Central America (ITCA). ITCA now includes over 40 advocacy groups and organizations representing 15 states and supports national immigration initiatives that affect the Central American community in the United States.
2005 CARECEN promoted and supported the Central American Security Act (CASA). This proposed immigration legislation would have amended the 1997 NACARA legislation by granting permanent residence to the many Hondurans, Salvadorans and Nicaraguans that were left out of the first act.
CARECEN moved into its new offices at 1460 Columbia Road NW.
2006 CARECEN took an active role in mobilizations on behalf of comprehensive immigration reform that drew approximately 1.25 million participants across the country.
In March and April our community joined rallies organized to oppose Congressional Bill HR-4437, which criminalized undocumented workers and all those who help them. CARECEN helped inform constituents on key issues such as legalization as a path to citizenship for the undocumented, worker rights, civil rights and civil liberties, and the DREAM Act.
2009 Through its Community and Civic Participation (CCP) Program, CARECEN promoted dialogue around public safety issues, housing, and civic engagement between residents, businesses, and other stakeholders.
In November 2009, after CARECEN worked with tenants at 3121 Mt. Pleasant Street, NW for three years, the 18 households at 3121 Mount Pleasant St. took control of their building. This was made possible through a $1.8 million loan from the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development for the tenants to buy the building through a cooperative corporation. CARECEN guided them step by step as they went from potentially having no say in how their housing is operated to gaining substantial control over their housing.
2010 CARECEN expanded its presence and services in Maryland by offering more immigration forums, citizenship presentations and workshops, and foreclosure prevention and financial literacy workshops as part of a grant from the Prince George’s County Government.
As an official 2010 U.S. Census partner, CARECEN engaged in extensive outreach and education throughout the duration of the Census.CARECEN participated in a local coalition of community based organizations to stop the implementation of the failed Secure Communities program in the District of Columbia. CARECEN joined forces with other local and national organizations to rally in support of immigration reform. Over 15,000 Latinos from the District of Columbia participated in the successful march.
2011 In CARECEN’s thirtieth year, the organization continued to offer legal services, housing counseling, and citizenship courses to the area’s Latino community. Through CARECEN’s Community Support Services Program, Latinos in the D.C. area developed effective strategies to overcome common problems such as unemployment, lack of access to health care, tax debts and issues, and workplace abuse. Through a new partnership with the D.C. Superior Court, CARECEN begins offering bilingual dispute resolution services on-site once a month to individuals with employment, consumer, tenant, and other issues.
2011 was a year of celebration and also of sorrow for CARECEN as staff and community members mourned the loss of CARECEN president and community advocate Saul Solorzano. For over 20 years, Saul fought for the well-being and development of the Latino community in the D.C. area and helped to protect the civil rights of immigrants. Saul’s accomplishments were honored at CARECEN’s Anniversary Dinner and Awards Ceremony, which also celebrated the organization’s three decades of serving Washington D.C.’s Latino community.
2012 CARECEN joined dozens of organizations around the country for the launch of the Campaign for Permanent Residency, which seeks permanent resident status for the nearly 270,000 Central Americans who currently have Temporary Protected Status. The national campaign seeks to secure a more stable and safe future for these individuals by allowing them to become Permanent Residents and putting them on the path to U.S. Citizenship.
Today, CARECEN remains true to its long history of promoting the comprehensive development of the Central American and the wider Latino community in the Washington Metropolitan Area. CARECEN provides the information, access, direct services, life-skills and civic education necessary for Latinos to attain a safe and stable environment for their families. All of our work is meant to facilitate the process of transition for immigrants to an integrated life in their new home. We also strive to foster human rights advocacy and leadership skills so that all of those who participate in our programs and services can, in turn, can play a role in the advancement of the community.
In the years to come, CARECEN will continue to achieve its mission by responding to the changing needs of our region’s Latino community as it deepens its roots in the United States.