Law & Border – Legal assistance to immigrants and victims of domestic abuse

Law & Border – Legal assistance to immigrants and victims of domestic abuse

The Camden Center for Law and Social Justice

Photos by James A. McBride

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Above left, Carole Wood, coordinator for immigration, speaks to a client at the Center for Law and Social Justice, now in its 20th year. Right, Jeff DeCristofaro, executive director, stands with Lisa Incollingo, coordinator of domestic violence and family law; Evelyn Sabando, Board of Immigration Appeals representative; Carole Wood; and Brenda Miranda, legal assistant.

CAMDEN – For the past 20 years, the Camden Center for Law and Social Justice has helped the immigrant population in South Jersey, providing legal assistance on immigration and domestic violence cases.
In most cases, the staff of attorneys are the last resort for immigrants, who know little English, have few family connections in the United States, and little to no knowledge of U.S. legal matters. Last year, the center provided direct services to over 2,000 individuals, and reached out to over 4,300, total.
“We are here for the folks in the shadows,” says Jeff DeCristofaro, executive director at the Camden Center for Law and Social Justice (CCLSJ).
The organization’s beginnings were in the late 1980s, when Jesuit Father David Brooks ran a neighborhood law practice for parishioners of Holy Name Church. In 1993, the Camden Center for Law and Social Justice was founded as a collaboration between the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, the Camden Diocese, and lay ministers.
The CCLSJ added an Atlantic City office 15 years ago and an office in Bridgeton nearly two years ago.
The CCLSJ has assisted more than 15,000 individuals with immigration legal matters, at little to no cost, and is currently the largest provider of immigration legal assistance to the poor and working poor in South Jersey. Their help is needed in a state that typically ranks in the top five in immigrant population. According to a 2011 Pew Research Study, the state of New Jersey had between 550,000 and 600,000 undocumented immigrants in 2010.
In 2004, the center began representing victims of domestic violence, and today is the leading provider of free legal assistance to victims of domestic violence in Camden and Gloucester counties.
Immigrants today have fled their native country due to hardships such as war, poverty and persecution. In the United States, they face immediate challenges such as finding a job, looking for a home and enrolling children in school.
CCLSJ is funded by state grants and substantial assistance from the Camden Diocese and from Catholic Charities. With volunteer and paid attorneys, it helps immigrants on citizenship issues and visa applications, fighting deportation or helping clients bring a loved one to the U.S.
“Our presence is very important” to immigrants, said Carole Wood, coordinator for immigration.
Working with CCLSJ since 2000, Wood meets with clients in her offices in Camden and Atlantic City. Once a month, she estimates, she travels to Newark with her clients to assist them in their immigration court hearings, where they face a judge to fight to stay in the United States, or to bring relatives into the country.
Evelyn Sabando, a government-certified Board of Immigration Appeals representative, assists with more than 100 cases a month in Bridgeton, Camden and Atlantic City. Born in Puerto Rico, she is invaluable to those whose first language is Spanish.
The majority of the immigrants stepping into the offices come from Latin-American countries, but clients also come from Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
“I see my job as a ministry,” said Sabando. “I help these people fulfill their dreams.”
In working with domestic violence victims, Lisa Incollingo, coordinator of domestic violence and family law, is one of the only pro-bono domestic violence attorneys in the state, seeing clients from Camden County, which has the highest rate of domestic violence in the state of New Jersey.
Now in her eighth year at CCLSJ, she counsels victims, seeks restraining orders for them, and accompanies them to court. Incollingo has also visited high schools and cautioned students about the dangers of dating violence.
“I’m helping people,” she said, adding that the thank you cards and hugs from individuals is “better than anything.”
The CCLSJ employees everyday see how important their work is.
“For a lot of people, we’re the only option,” DeCristofaro said. “If we weren’t here, families would be broken up, and people would be victimized.”
“Because we are affiliated with the Catholic Church, they know they can trust us. These people we serve are the fabric of our community. Let’s let them have the same opportunity as everyone else.”

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