“It’s no secret that in order to be as effective as possible with immigrant groups, you need to have cultural familiarity and work hand-in-hand with like-minded organizations.” – LALDEF Executive Director Maria Juega.  

As Melina Roche darts around the modest Trenton headquarters of the Latin American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LALDEF), she hardly flinches when yet another resident walks in seeking tax-filing assistance.

It’s tax season. Roche, a Mercer County native, Monmouth University graduate and manager of LALDEF’s Welcome House project, helps Trenton-area immigrants prepare their tax returns.

Melina Roche, manager of LALDEF’s Welcome House project, helps Trenton-area immigrants prepare their tax returns.

Melina Roche, manager of LALDEF’s Welcome House project, helps Trenton-area immigrants prepare their tax returns.

It’s a busy time of year, but Welcome House and LALDEF have been at this for a decade and recognize they offer a critical service to those new to the country.

“Many of our clients are here to make sure they’ve crossed every T and have dotted every I,” she said. “It’s important to make sure they’re on the right track, but, to me, this is also about giving people some peace of mind. I’m a first-generation Guatemalan, so I know the challenges facing the immigrant community when it comes to the lack of support for basic services.”

Welcome House, a membership-based organization that provides immigrants with essential amenities such as community ID cards and ESL and computer classes, is part of LALDEF’s expanding service portfolio, representing a growing demand.

“We’ve evolved into a multi-service organization based on the needs of the immigrant community,” said LALDEF Executive Director Maria Juega. “If we’re going to make a broad impact, we need to have a broad scope. But it also has to be strategic. The Community Foundation has provided multiple grants over the past eight years, including $25,000 in unrestricted support in 2013 to be used where it would be most helpful to LALDEF’s growth.”

LALDEF, launched from the Princeton-based Latin American Task Force in 2004, serves the Latino community by defending and promoting civil rights, and providing access to health care and education for low-income Latin American immigrants.

Ten years later, the organization has relocated to Trenton, where more than a third of community is Hispanic or Latino—nearly twice the state average. In response, LALDEF has expanded its capacity.

The organization recently launched a new program for domestic violence victims, No Estas Sola (“You are not alone”). Previously, the only action LALDEF could take to assist a victim was to help get a restraining order, Juega said. Now, with a $15,000 grant from the Community Foundation’s Fund for Women and Girls, LALDEF can increase its capacity and, subsequently, its impact.

“Because of the Community Foundation, we now have our own legal services program; we’re able to help domestic violence victims get legal status if they need it,” Juega said. “We deal with so many women who have no legal status, so this goes a long, long way to helping the community.”

Lack of legal status represents a major barrier to achieving self-sufficiency, Juega said. “If you can’t work legally, if you’re unable to apply for certain benefits, if you don’t have access to amenities available to so many residents, you’re at a huge disadvantage out of the gate,” she said.

But it’s not just about providing legal status for victims, Juega said. “These women have been isolated by their abusers and they have no network to rely on. They often can’t read or write, so providing legal assistance can, for many, build a path that allows these women to realize every potential.”

LALDEF relies on its own network of nonprofits in Trenton and in Mercer County. “It’s no secret that in order to be as effective as possible with immigrant groups, you need to have cultural familiarity and work hand-in-hand with like-minded organizations,” Juega said.

“We need whatever expertise we can get; there is so much work to do, and it’s essential that we do it right,” she added.

For more information on the Latin American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, click here.