Philadelphia immigration advocates are calling for the resignation of a community leader seen front row at President Donald Trump’s Harrisburg rally last month.
Honduras-born Carolina DiGiorgio, the CEO of Congreso de Latinos Unidos, sat inches away from Trump as he promised to build the infamous wall separating Mexico from the United States.
“Year after year, you pleaded for Washington to enforce our laws as illegal immigration surged, refugees flooded in and lax vetting threatened your family’s safety and security,” Trump said at the April 29 rally. “Don’t worry, we’re going to have the wall.”
After the Philadelphia Weekly uncovered a photo and reported about DiGiorgio at the Harrisburg rally, advocates started saying that the CEO's politics are incongruous with Congreso’s work in the Latino community.
“I have zero faith that someone who stands front row at a Trump rally while he yells ‘Build that wall’ can lead an organization whose mission is stated to serve Latinos,” said Erika Almiron, executive director of immigrant action group Juntos.
“As a leader, you must love your community, believe in them. The behavior shows us none of that. Carolina should be fired immediately.”
DiGiorgio’s political ties are no secret. She is married to Valentino F. DiGiorgio III, chairman of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party. He also spoke at the rally and has expressed support for former Hazleton mayor and current U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta as a potential challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey in next year’s election.
Barletta rose to infamy in 2006 after he introduced legislation many considered to be anti-immigrant. The measures included denying permits to businesses that hire undocumented immigrants and fining landlords who rent to them. Neither were ever enforced. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the measures in 2014 after a lengthy legal battle.
Given those ties, DiGiorgio’s appearance at Trump’s rally ruffled more than a few feathers.
“She must be really tone deaf to do this,” said Marwan Kreidie, executive director of the Arab American Development Corporation. “Someone who runs a nonprofit has to be a little smarter than that. It puts her ability to lead in question.”
Kreidie said he will be among the signers of a letter calling for DiGiorgio to step down.
Congreso serves a population in the throes of poverty. More than 90 percent of their members live below the federal poverty line and 53 percent make less than $10,000 per year, according to Congreso’s website. The majority of their members are Puerto Rican.
By contrast, Congreso’s former CEO made more than $200,000. DiGiorgio’s salary has not been disclosed. She and her husband live in Chester County where the median income is more than $85,000, according to the U.S. Census.
“She has a lot of experience, but it shows a disconnect with the community that she serves,” Emma Restrepo, radio personality at Philadelphia’s El Zol, said of DiGiorgio’s ties to Trump.
“This is someone who can’t feel or understand what the community is going through.”
Congreso was founded in 1977 with the stated mission to “strengthen Latino communities through social, economic and health services, leadership development and advocacy,” according to the organization’s website.
But since DiGiorgio was seen at a Trump rally, Restrepo has heard from Congreso members who said they will never return to the center for fear of being reported to immigration officials. Restrepo worries that without a safe place to turn, an already marginalized community might sink further into the shadows.
“When I didn’t have my papers I lived in fear of the police,” she said.
Congreso’s “work for the past 30 years is now in doubt. The only way to make amends with the community is to resign.”
But Esperanza Martinez Neu, chair of Congreso’s executive board, said fear is not warranted. Community members are not in danger of being deported.
“It’s unfortunate that people are afraid, but they shouldn’t be,” she said. “It’s more about what’s going on in the country than it is about Carolina.”
Neu described DiGiorgio as an innovative and creative leader with the smarts necessary to fulfill Congreso’s mission. The two joined Congreso’s board around the same time, and Neu has watched DiGiorgio ascend into leadership while maintaining an eye on inclusivity. She never hid her politics from staff, Neu said.
“She demonstrates empathy. She’s very sensitive to other people’s needs,” Neu said. “I’m excited to see her rise.”
DiGiorgio did not provide a comment to NBC10.