This article was originally published in the September 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
Is there an issue more prominent or more contentious in the age of Trump than immigration?
The Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF), located on Chambers Street across from St. Francis Hospital in Trenton, is in the middle of it, dealing with the way speeches at campaign rallies become translated into actions that affect people living among us.
It is an issue that goes back further than the recent campaign rhetoric. Formed in 2004 by volunteers who became concerned by immigration raids and detentions in the Princeton area, LALDEF has become a resource for immigrants in Mercer County who are at risk of being detained or deported and who are vulnerable to having their status challenged.
For immigrants, daily life can be touch and go. Adriana Abizadeh, who was named LALDEF executive director earlier this year, says there are an estimated 20,000 immigrants in Trenton, with 3,000 vulnerable to being rounded up and sent to jail.
“Since the morning following the election in November we have been very busy,” Abizadeh says. “Our agency is here to calm families and help them work through the initial stress and anxiety by educating them about their rights and empowering them to utilize them. We have spent a lot of time conducting ‘Know Your Rights’ sessions in the community as well as in-service training sessions for other nonprofit agencies in the area. We know that violence against immigrants has increased across the nation and there have been some local articles arguing that it is heightened in Trenton.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, conducts arrests in Trenton periodically.
“We know that ICE is in the city every week, typically,” Abizadeh says. “They are detaining individuals typically two to three times per month in the city of Trenton. The last detention was within the last two weeks.”
An official nonprofit, LALDEF is focused on promoting educational opportunities, which includes helping people who want to pursue college. It also conducts citizenship classes.
“LALDEF has four core program areas: immigration legal services, college prep to immigrant youth, the Mercer County Community ID Card, and supportive programming, which includes income tax preparation, educational and health-related advocacy, including computer classes, ESL classes, literacy classes, citizenship test prep classes, translations, and service referral to other agencies in the community,” she says. “We have great successes in our educational college access programs.
“LALDEF serves about 1,000 households per year across all of our programs. We unfortunately do not have the capacity to assist clients who are in detention or in deportation proceedings. We can assist clients with locating family members once detained, but after that we refer them to larger organizations like AFSC (American Friends Services Committee) or private attorneys in the area that we trust.”
LALDEF offices are in a building called “Welcome House.”
“We want immigrants to feel like they can come to us with any problem, and we will try to locate resources for them. We cannot answer everything, but there are resources in the community among other nonprofits, the faith community, and government. We work to facilitate those services and make sure that access is possible.
“Trenton has seen a significant increase in immigrant detention,” she says. “We’ve been doing a lot with education, making sure people know their rights. Under President Trump we are seeing a lot more home detentions. We are making sure people understand they don’t have to open their doors; they have the right to remain silent. We also try to educate children.”
Abizadeh says immigrants can be detained for violations of state or federal law, not for motor vehicle or other municipal violations. The legal machinery starts moving if someone is undocumented or has fallen out of status, meaning a visa has expired or a permit has not renewed. If a deportation order becomes the result, that outcome can take place within “a couple of days,” Abizadeh says.
At that point, if the temptation is to envision an intervention with tires screeching leading to a dramatic courtroom showdown, LALDEF is not that kind of organization.
“We do not intervene, we serve our clients,” Abizadeh says. “We know that the challenges that the immigrant community faces are many and we are here to help them get the resources they need to work through them.
“We’re a really, really small nonprofit,” she says. “We can’t afford the legal representation that we would need. We would need a staff attorney. We represent people before they go into court.”
There is a staff of 11, she says. The board of directors comprises a group that has remained close to the organization’s Princeton roots.
This is the kind of work that always seems to have been close to Abizadeh’s heart. Her parents arrived in the United States from Puerto Rico as young children. They are both retired. Her father was an immigration attorney. “My mother came here at age 19, after her first daughter was born, in search of better employment opportunities and in order to give her daughter a better life,” Abizadeh says. “My father came here when he was two years old. His family left Puerto Rico shortly after he was born and moved to Chicago. Once they got situated they sent for him and they reunited.”
Both ended up in Camden, which once was an employment hub. That is where Abizadeh and her four sisters grew up. At 27, she is the next to the youngest.
“He wanted to be the savior of the world,” she says of her father. “He was a public defender, then he became a child guardian defender, but that job was too depressing. Then he went into immigration law and he kind of liked it.
“Although I am not an immigrant, I love immigrants. For many years I worked alongside them in restaurants as I worked throughout high school and through the completion of my college experience. Immigrants have helped me, taught me, and ultimately have shaped me. I work in service to and for them as a group in our society that remains forever humble and yearns for inclusion. I haven’t stopped learning from our immigrant neighbors; I doubt I ever will.”
Before taking the position at LALDEF, Abizadeh worked at the St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society, a neighborhood development and home ownership organization in Camden. She graduated from Rutgers and earned a master’s degree at Drexel University. Abizadeh and her husband live in Moorestown. Her husband is a union carpenter and they have two young children, a boy and a girl.
As if the day-to-day issues aren’t enough, Abizadeh finds that old notions persist in this country. For example, not everyone seems to realize that Puerto Ricans are American citizens.
“Yes, I have heard that before,” she says, “not a lot, but several times in my life, most recently being about three months ago.”
Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund, 669 Chambers Street B. 609-688-0881 or www.laldef.org.