March 18, 2020

Award-Winning LALDEF Team Continues To Serve Mercer Immigrant Community

“A MAGICAL ORGANIZATION”: Founders, board members past and present, and staff members of the Latin American Legal and Defense Education Fund (LALDEF) were all in attendance at last week’s Princeton Council meeting when LALDEF received an Award of Recognition for its support of immigrant neighbors since 2004. (Photo courtesy of LALDEF)
By Donald Gilpin
Described as “a magical organization” by its Board Chair Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, the Latin American Legal Defense Education Fund (LALDEF) has been supporting community members in central New Jersey since 2004 and currently serves more than 3,000 clients a year.

LALDEF, with its staff of 16 and a volunteer network of more than 40 based in their new headquarters La Casa Bienvenida in Trenton, has been especially busy in recent years.
“Our immigrant community has been experiencing hardships and are more vulnerable now than ever before,” said Princeton Councilwoman Leticia Fraga last week in presenting LALDEF with an Award of Recognition from Princeton Council. “We should always keep in mind that we are a nation of immigrants, and we ought to welcome and aid the most vulnerable. LALDEF has been doing just that, working hard for many years, and we can see the difference LALDEF has made in the community by the lives improved of the people they serve.”
LALDEF, a nonprofit which is both a direct services and an advocacy organization, operates programs in five different areas: legal services, a community ID program, adult education, FUTURO for high school students, and advocacy/outreach.
The community ID program, administered at the Princeton Public Library and in partnership with RISE in Hightstown, has issued more than 14,000 community IDs, which can be used for health services, banks, schools, and other social services.
FUTURO, LALDEF’s college readiness program, currently works with 30 juniors and seniors in Trenton and 30 juniors and seniors in Princeton. Twenty-six Futuro high school seniors will be graduating this June, all going on to matriculate in college.
The LALDEF legal services department offers low-cost assistance with the filing of applications for citizenship, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), self-petitions for victims of domestic violence under the Violence Against Women Act, and U and T visas for victims of crime, among other services.
The adult education program at LALDEF offers ESL, high school equivalency, computer literacy, citizenship prep, and other learning and literacy initiatives.
In the area of immigrant and human rights advocacy, LALDEF supports current policy and legislative movements aimed to increase access for immigrants to better life opportunities, like the recently passed New Jersey driver’s license for immigrants legislation.
Fraga, who has worked with LALDEF over the past 10 years, described her introduction to the organization when she was looking for opportunities to volunteer. “As a first-generation immigrant who understood too well the importance of the services LALDEF was providing, and who wished my family had access to such a caring organization when we first immigrated, it was a match made in heaven,” she said. In its early days, LALDEF operated out of a room in the basement of Princeton Nassau Presbyterian, Fraga noted.
“LALDEF’s mission initially was to support its Latino immigrant neighbors,” she continued. “As the organization grew, and as the social and cultural demographic shifted in the region, LALDEF recognized both the other existing immigrant populations as well as new immigrant populations in the area. While Latinos are still the largest group LALDEF serves, they serve, and invite in, all of our immigrant neighbors.”
She continued, “They are a truly grassroots nonprofit organization, defending the civil rights of all immigrants in Mercer County. LALDEF recognizes that what is good for immigrant children and their families is good for all families.”
LALDEF Executive Director Dina Paulson-McEwen acknowledged the challenges ahead as LALDEF will be working remotely for the next two weeks with their offices closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We will be moving to remote and virtual communication as our primary way of interacting with our clients across our department areas during this time,” she wrote in a statement issued on Sunday. “Please check our website for updates on all our programming during these next two weeks:”
She added, “We have to now figure out how we can be guides, advocates, teachers, supporters, friends, listeners, and resource-bearers to our community through virtual means.”   In accepting the award at last week’s Council meeting Paulson-McEwen, who has been at the helm of LALDEF since January, praised her predecessors and the supportive Mercer County community. ”I’m totally in love with LALDEF and its beautiful history of people who have created and uplifted the organization,” she said. “We couldn’t do the work we do without the benevolent community that shares the values that we share. We’re grateful to have so many friends and partners.”