Growing out of a Princeton community-based, non-funded coalition known as the Latin American Task Force, the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF) is now a thriving nonprofit organization, serving between 3,000 and 3,500 low-income immigrant neighbors every year at its historic, Trenton-based headquarters, known as Casa de Bienvenida.
Early Days: 2004-2008
After seeing the growing marginalization and stresses on the local Latino community due to increased levels of immigration enforcement after 9/11, a group of concerned Mercer County area residents joined together to take action. Initially all-volunteer and Princeton-based, the team included Anne Reeves (founding director of the Arts Council of Princeton), Ryan Lilienthal (immigration attorney), and Ann Yasuhara, along with representatives from Princeton Friends Meeting. Working out of borrowed space in Nassau Presbyterian’s basement, letters of incorporation were drafted and Maria Juega (“Charo”) was named president. By August 2004, the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund received its 501(c)(3) determination and registered with the New Jersey Directory of Charities (#CH2720800).
One of its first efforts (in 2008) was to offer Community ID Cards in Princeton. “When a Princeton resident was unable to get dialysis treatment from the hospital and a local mother was prohibited from buying over-the-counter cough medicine for her sick child, [it was] because they did not have proper ID” (The Princeton Sun, Oct 22-28, 2014).
Opening Up to Trenton
Also in 2008, as the leaders at LALDEF recognized that the need in nearby Trenton was as palpable as in Princeton, they spearheaded the creation of the Tremendously Trenton Health Care Partnership, an informal coalition of all the major health care providers in the City of Trenton working in partnership with the Hispanic American Medical Association of Mercer County, grass roots civic associations of various immigrant groups, religious congregations, the Trenton Public Schools, the Police Department, and the city’s Health and Human Services Department. In August 2009, LALDEF opened an office for Tremendously Trenton in donated office space at Mercy House, a community center of Divine Mercy Parish in Trenton.
A few months later, LALDEF — in partnership with the Trenton Board of Education — launched FUTURO, a youth mentoring program for twelve Trenton High School students in their senior year. FUTURO now serves approximately 60 sophomores, juniors, and seniors each year in the greater Mercer County area. To date, the program has served nearly 500 first-generation immigrant teenagers and with few exceptions, all have completed college instruction.
A First Home
Five years later, LALDEF was still itinerant. Then in April 2013, LALDEF opened its first Welcome House — a community center to welcome and facilitate immigrant incorporation — on Chambers Street. The idea was based on The International Institute of Trenton, which opened its doors in 1911 for “the welcoming of new arrivals, teaching them whatsoever they need in the new environment, providing necessary recreation, securing work, assisting in family problems and so far as possible thus bridging the chasm between the old and new life.” (A History of Trenton, 1679-1929, The Trenton Historical Society). The permanent residence allowed LALDEF to expand its ID Card program and serve a greater number of low-income immigrants. A year later, LALDEF had expanded to serve clients six days a week (instead of two), introduced adult English and computer literacy classes, and expanded its tax preparation program.
Casa de Bienvenida
As LALDEF continued to grow, serving more and more clients each year, the need for a larger space became evident. A new space was identified: the previously-named In and Out Social Club — once a support center, founded in 1889 for “social, intellectual, and recreational purposes.” Housed in a three-floor building in Chambersburg, Trenton, the 1892 building became a refuge for the local immigrant population. In May 2018, LALDEF purchased the building and renamed it Casa de Bienvenida — or Welcome House. Services at the new home began a few months later after a number of renovations on Friday, July 6th, 2018.