By Donald Gilpin
“LALDEF (Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund) is currently in puberty,” executive director Cecy Jimenez-Weeast said in a telephone interview Monday. “It has a lot of potential to grow.”
And that growth is visible in all facets of the nonprofit, which was founded in 2004 to defend the civil rights of Latin Americans in the Mercer County area and promote their access to health care and education.
Jimenez-Weeast described her goal to further expand LALDEF’s legal services and education programs across the county and to increase its presence in Princeton in particular. LALDEF’s embrace of the Latinas Unidas organization, announced on November 22, will help bolster that growth.
“We are excited to welcome the Latinas Unidas program,” said Jimenez-Weeast. “Founded by our current board president Sasa Olessi Montano 30 years ago, the goal of that program is to support new immigrants in the area, to help women entering to connect with other women and to learn about available services. It is a support group for women and families. The mission of Latinas fits the mission of LALDEF.”
Latinas Unidas was originally based in Trenton and moved to the YWCA in Princeton in 2015. When it needed a home this year, Montano was eager to invite Latinas Unidas to join LALDEF. Before taking charge at LALDEF a year and a half ago, Jimenez-Weeast noted, she ran the Latinas Unidas program for 25 years.
LALDEF looks forward to expanding their immigration legal services and recently announced that their associate Shelly Peskin has become an accredited representative of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and can represent individuals on immigration legal issues for the Department of Homeland Security.
LALDEF’s legal services department now includes a supervising attorney, two DOJ-accredited representatives, and a legal services coordinator. The team ensures that recent immigrants to Mercer County know their rights, access protective services, and successfully navigate the complex legal systems leading to permanent status in the United States.
Jimenez-Weeast noted that LALDEF had added additional hours for legal screening, with both evening and morning hours to meet the needs of their clients seeking consultations about their legal rights and options. “There’s a constant stream of customers,” says Jimenez-Weeast. ‘There is a lot of demand for screenings and we are fully booked until December. We set up initial screenings of a client to determine if the client has a case that LALDEF can handle.”
As of November 21, LALDEF had conducted approximately 55 legal screenings since mid-October.
Jimenez Weeast was
particularly excited about LALDEF’s growing education programs. Griselda Pachuca-Garcia, who recently took over as FUTURO Program Coordinator, is a graduate of Rutgers University and wants to continue LALDEF’s work with high school students in the area — currently 42 juniors and seniors, 26 from Trenton, 16 from Princeton.
LALDEF, with help from Mercer County Community College, recently hosted a workshop for students and their families who were completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). “We had a full house,” said Jimenez-Weeast. “It’s been fantastic. Next month our undergraduate students will be visiting Stockton University, and in May they will be taking part in a Poetry Slam where they will express their views as first- and second-generation students pursuing higher education.”
Jimenez-Weeast added: “There is a lot of demand and our aim is to increase the number of students in
Princeton. We need to be more visible in Princeton than we have been in the past because of the need there.
She went on to list a number of grants LALDEF has recently received, including a grant from the Princeton Area Community Foundation to address health disparities in Mercer County; a three-year grant from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for extended services to recent immigrants; a grant from the Mercer County One-Stop Career Center to provide community work experience training; a grant from the New Jersey Department of Labor; and a grant from the Merancas Foundation.
“It is my goal to grow LALDEF and become the premier resource center for the Latino community, not just in Trenton but throughout Mercer County,” said Jimenez-Weeast. “It has been challenging, but LALDEF is equipped to deliver the services our community deserves. It is so necessary.”