That same year, Hurricane David ravaged the Dominican Republic, where Casas was born. The devastation was so extensive that her family made the decision to move to Long Island, where they had relatives in Freeport.
The hardest part of the move was being separated from her mother. Casas was 5 years old when her family decided to leave the Dominican Republic. Her mother left for the U.S. first to get situated. “The most difficult thing, and I know this is a thing that happens to so many families, is that everybody can’t come at once. So I was separated from my mother, which was extremely traumatic,” said Casas.
“It’s something that, when you hear about unaccompanied minors here, nobody is talking about how difficult it is, as a child, not to be with their caretaker who they know and trust,” Casas said.
For Casas, her first years in the U.S. were a bit of a culture shock. The weather, food, language, even sounds of a new land, took getting used to. “I remember coming here, it was December of 1979 and just being completely shocked that it was so cold,” remembered Casas.
Casas graduated with honors from Freeport Public School. She feels her successes in school and in life are because she had great teachers who mentored her. “You know teachers make such an impact on a kid’s life, especially an immigrant kid’s life because that little bit of encouragement that a teacher can offer to a child who feels different…can help you get over the obstacle of ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” Casas said. “In the life and the path of an immigrant child there’s always that sense of who am I? Can I do this? And all kids go through that but it’s a little bit more palpable in a child who feels like they don’t belong,” said Casas.
Casas also spoke of the hardships her parents went through so they could have better opportunities, “My parents had to work very hard, and they had to work in jobs, not jobs that capitalize on their full potential. That’s the sacrifice that immigrant parents make when they come here,” Casas explained.
“I had to work extra hard, and that’s what my parents instilled in me. Never waste the opportunity of the sweat on my mother’s brow in that factory…You don’t have time to waste and you see your parents struggling and you want to achieve and you want to help them, and you want to be worthy of their sacrifice,” she said.
Casas graduated from the University of Virginia and then went on to New York University, where she received her Master’s in public administration with a concentration in Social Policy and Administration in Government.
Casas began her career as a case manager for foster care children and emotionally disturbed children at St. Christopher Ottilie in Sea Cliff, and then as a program director for Harbor Child Care in Hempstead. Here she realized how the lack of funding affected important programs such as education, health and community school programs, for which she became an advocate.
Casas never thought she would end up working in government. Her real passion was working with the community, advocating for people’s rights and “being a conduit to the people.”
“I was kind of dragged into government because I was always advocating before the legislature,” she said. “I realized that you need to be part of their [the government’s] vehicle so that you can better serve people.”
In 2002, Casas became the head of the Nassau County agency CASA (Coordinated Agency for Spanish Americans), a resource and referral agency, which contributes to the education and general welfare of Hispanic and Latino Americans in Nassau County.
“When you invest in an immigrant you are investing in the future of this country and that’s what this country is built on,” Casas said.
Casas is a respected and influential leader on Long Island. Today, she is the Regional Representative on Long Island for Governor Andrew Cuomo. She oversees the governor’s inter-government work with local governments on Long Island.
“I look at it [her job] as a vehicle to serve people but I am not a politician…I really feel that people deserve equal representation with dignity and respect and we are all created equal under the law and that’s what we deserve,” she said. “People really want to integrate, they want to be a part, they want to contribute and when you give them the tools, they do it and they don’t do it to harm this country, they do it to strengthen this country.”
She believes that immigrants who “have the grit” to brave the difficult process that it takes to get here and make it here, end up loving this country more than the country they were born in.
Casas is married to Andres Casas, an immigrant from Colombia and still lives in Freeport.
Maryann Sinclair Slutsky is the executive director of Long Island Wins, a communications organization promoting common-sense policy solutions to local immigration issues. The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the publisher or Anton Media Group.