LALDEF partners with Latinas Unidas to expand local immigration services

Donald Gilpin

Ceci Jimenez-West

“LALDEF (Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund) is in its adolescence right now,” executive director Cecy Jimenez-Weeast said in a phone interview Monday. “It has a lot of potential for growth.”

The growth is evident across the board at the nonprofit, which was founded in 2004 to defend the civil rights and promote access to health care and education for Latinos in the Mercer County area.

Jimenez-Weeast described her goal to continue to expand LALDEF’s legal services and educational programs throughout the county, particularly increasing its presence in Princeton. LALDEF announced on November 22 that it has joined the Latinas Unidas organization, which will help facilitate this growth.

“We are delighted to welcome the Latinas Unidas program,” Jimenez-Weeast said. “Founded 30 years ago by our current board chair, Sasa Olessi Montano, the goal of this program is to support newcomers to the area, helping incoming women connect with other women and learn about the services available. It is a support group for women and families . Latinas’ mission meets LALDEF’s mission.”

Latinas Unidas was initially headquartered in Trenton before moving to the YWCA in Princeton in 2015. When it came time to settle this year, Montano was eager to invite Latinas Unidas to LALDEF. Jimenez-Weeast noted that she was in charge of the Latinas Unidas program for 25 years before taking charge of LALDEF a year and a half ago.

LALDEF looks forward to expanding its immigration legal services and recently announced that its staff member, Shelly Peskin, has become a Department of Justice (DOJ) accredited representative to represent individuals in immigration law matters with 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 newcomers to Mercer County know their rights, have access to protective services, and can successfully navigate the complex legal system to gain permanent status in the United States.

Jimenez-Weeast noted that LALDEF has added additional legal screening hours, including evening and morning hours, to meet the needs of clients who are seeking counseling about their legal rights and options. “The customers just kept coming,” Jimenez-Weeast said. “Screenings are in high demand and we are booked into December. We do an initial screening of clients to see if they have a case that LALDEF can handle.”

As of November 21, LALDEF had conducted approximately 55 legal screenings since mid-October.

Jimenez-West
Especially enthusiastic about LALDEF’s ever-growing educational programme. Griselda Pachuca-Garcia, a first-generation Rutgers graduate who recently took over as FUTURO program coordinator, will seek to continue LALDEF’s work with area high school students—currently 42 juniors and seniors, 26 from Trenton, 16 from Princeton.

LALDEF, with the assistance of Mercer County Community College, recently held a workshop for students and their families who have completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). “We sold out,” Jimenez-Weeast said. “It was fantastic. Next month, our student participants will be visiting Stockton University, and in May, they will be participating in the Poetry Slam, where they will express themselves as first-generation and higher education-focused A second-generation student’s perspective.”

Jimenez-Weeast added, “There is a lot of demand and our goal is to increase the number of students
Princeton. Because of the needs there, we need to be more visible at Princeton than we have been in the past. “

She went on to mention some of the recent grants LALDEF has received, including a grant from the Princeton Area Community Foundation to address health disparities in Mercer County; a three-year grant from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), for integrated services for newcomers; 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 Melancas Foundation.

“My goal is for LALDEF to grow and become a major resource center for the Latino community, not just in Trenton, but in all of Mercer County,” Jimenez-Weeast said. “It’s been a challenge, but LALDEF has the ability to provide what our community deserves. So much needed.”

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