November 23, 2022

LALDEF Joins with Latinas Unidas, Expands Local Services for Immigrants

By Donald Gilpin

Cecy Jimenez-Weeast

“LALDEF (Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund) is in its adolescent years right now,” said Executive Director Cecy Jimenez-Weeast in a Monday phone interview. “It’s got a lot of potential to grow.” 

And that growth is evident in all facets of the nonprofit organization, which was founded in 2004 to defend the civil rights of Latin Americans in the Mercer County area and to promote their access to health care and education. 

Jimenez-Weeast described her goal of continuing to expand LALDEF’s legal services and education programs throughout 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 to enhance that growth.

“We are thrilled 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 the support of new immigrants in the area, to help women coming in 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, then 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.

Looking forward to expanding their immigration legal services, LALDEF recently announced that their staff member Shelly Peskin has become a Department of Justice (DOJ) accredited representative and can represent individuals in immigration legal matters before 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 makes sure that recent immigrants to Mercer County know their rights, have access to protective services, and can successfully navigate the complicated legal systems that lead to permanent status in the United States.

Jimenez-Weeast noted that LALDEF had added extra hours for legal screening, with evening as well as morning hours to meet the needs of their clients who are seeking consultations concerning their legal rights and options. “There’s a constant flow of clients,” said Jimenez-Weeast. “Screenings are in demand and we’re booked through December. We set up a client’s first screenings to determine if the client has a case that LALDEF can handle.”

As of November 21, LALDEF had conducted about 55 legal screens since mid-October.

Jimenez-Weeast was
especially enthusiastic about LALDEF’s growing education programs. Taking over recently as FUTURO Program coordinator, Griselda Pachuca-Garcia, a first-generation graduate of Rutgers University, will be looking to carry on LALDEF’s work with area high school students — currently 42 juniors and seniors, 26 from Trenton, 16 from Princeton. 

LALDEF, with assistance 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 was fantastic. Next month our student participants will be visiting Stockton University, and in May they will be participating in a poetry slam where they will express their views as first and second generation students aiming for higher education.”

Jimenez-Weeast added, “There’s lots of demand, and our goal 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 mention a number of grants received by LALDEF recently 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 comprehensive 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 make LALDEF grow and become the main resource center for the Latino community, not just in Trenton but in all Mercer County,” said Jimenez-Weeast. “It has been a challenge, but LALDEF is equipped to deliver the services that our community deserves. It is so needed.”