Local Organizations Equip Trenton’s Immigrants to Succeed

Ana Gramajo takes ESL classes at El Centro, a Catholic Charities program.
Photo credit: Roberto Hernandez

Opening the doors to opportunity in America can be difficult for immigrants. Some of the obstacles they must navigate are subtle, like when employers allow them fewer or shorter work breaks than their coworkers. Other challenges, like not knowing how to properly file a visa application, can be critical threats to the stability, security, and safety they hoped for when they arrived in this country. About 21,000 foreign-born individuals call Trenton home, according to the U.S. Census’s 2021 American Community Survey, and some of them struggle.

“I want to go to school, I don’t speak English well, I don’t have a job,” This lament is what a Haitian immigrant, who asked to be identified simply as “Mr. B”, remembered thinking when he arrived in the United States in 2016. The obstacles for immigrants can be daunting, but a variety of Trenton community organizations and individuals offer support.

 “I feel like when people come in they’re like a little timid,” said Anita Rivera-Rodriguez, Case Manager at Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, the organization to which Mr. B turned for help. However, she added, “they leave with a sense of relief. And I think that’s kind of important.”

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Addressing Immigrant Needs Holistically

Feeding the hungry in the Trenton area is TASK’s first priority, and immigrants are not the only TASK beneficiaries—anyone is welcome at TASK’s main location on Escher Street, and the additional 34 sites where it serves food. But the organization also offers education, computer classes, job search and employment services, assistance navigating social services, necessities like eyeglasses and toiletries, and arts-related opportunities. TASK’s “English as a second language” (ESL) classes attract immigrants who also take advantage of TASK’s other offerings, some of which are highly individualized. 

“We’re here to provide any kind of assistance that they may need,” said Rivera-Rodriguez of the organization’s clients. She
estimated that she helps 7-10 people per day, many of them foreign-born. Anyone who
requests case management services at TASK receives them; there are no eligibility requirements. Rivera-Rodriguez gave examples of assistance that TASK case managers have provided, including helping individuals obtain birth, marriage, and death certificates; assisting with low-income housing applications; and securing dental services.

Like TASK, the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF) offers a broad range of services, according to Miranda Christ, Director of Development and Communications. “We’re very much a community center; we provide holistic services. We do immigration legal services, and we do a variety of educational initiatives, including adult education, ESL, and high school equivalency [testing] preparation. We also have a youth mentoring program for high school students.”

“If somebody shows up and has a need, we either try to provide it or we do a lot of referrals to other organizations, too,” said Christ.

That is also the philosophy at faith-based Trenton organizations with a reputation for meeting immigrants’ needs, like El Centro, a program of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton.

“I think the advantage of working with El Centro is that we treat folks on a holistic level,” said El Centro’s director and co-founder, Roberto Hernandez, echoing Christ’s description of LALDEF. “For example, let’s say a mom comes in. She has an immigration issue. Well, when you sit down with the individual, and you talk to them, you find out that there’s much more going on than just the immigration issue.”

Hernandez talked about some of those other issues: substance abuse, health problems, language barriers, disputes with landlords, domestic violence, food insecurity, and financial concerns. El Centro partners with other organizations to address as many obstacles to immigrants’ well-being as possible.

At Westminster Presbyterian Church, people have access to groceries and toiletries and an ESL program that will soon restart, and there is a focus on serving children. 

“Our after-school program provides services to all children, but especially to the children of immigrant parents who don’t know English well enough to help their children do their homework,” said Rev. Karen Hernandez-Granzen, the church’s pastor. But the Westminster staff are also committed to giving parents support to ensure their children’s success.

“The parents want the best for the kids,” said Hernandez-Granzen, so Westminster is “helping immigrant parents help their children excel in their public school education, and teaching them English so that they can eventually help [their children] themselves, but also to equip them to get jobs.”  

English Language Instruction

ESL instruction is available at no cost from at El Centro, LALDEF, and TASK, and Westminster Presbyterian Church is preparing to restart its ESL offerings.

By implementing an ESL program and hiring more bilingual staff, TASK has both responded to and driven the demand among immigrants for its services in the last several years, according to Calmia “Mia” Hart, Manager of Adult Education & Workforce Preparedness. 

TASK’s ESL program, run by a volunteer named Bob Dietz, has been very popular—so popular that there is now a waiting list, and Hart is trying to recruit additional tutors. “Students that were working with Bob pre-pandemic have been coming back out of the woodwork,” she said, and those students have also referred their friends and family to his ESL classes.

Ana Gramajo takes ESL classes at El Centro. She came to Trenton from Guatemala, and works in a restaurant. She expressed appreciation for the practical nature of the coursework: for example, students might learn how to communicate to 911 responders if someone gets sick, and how to read the labels on containers of medicine. 

Hart illustrated the similarly practical focus of TASK’s ESL classes when she described how an ESL tutor helped a Chinese immigrant study for a driver’s license. “She took the test over the weekend,” Hart said of the woman. “She came in this morning and she passed. So that was a huge accomplishment.”

TASK Volunteer Bob Dietz (center) tutors ESL students.
Photo credit: TASK

Legal Advice

Compliance with U.S. immigration laws is a top concern for many immigrants, especially “unauthorized immigrants”—the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s term for foreign-born people who do not possess valid documents granting them the legal right to reside in the United States. That population, commonly referred to as “undocumented,” makes up more than a quarter of Mercer County’s foreign-born population. 56.5% of the county’s unauthorized immigrants come from Guatemala, India, Mexico, Ecuador, and Haiti, reported New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization

Aleksandra Gontaryuk is an attorney specializing in immigration law, and she says people come to her for “problem solving.” Her private practice counsels on topics that include family-based immigration, asylum, naturalization, employment-based petitions, and deportation.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service and the court system have faced “a huge backlog, a huge delay, and large processing times” for addressing immigration applications, Gontaryuk said. Applicants for family-based visas, for example, have been facing wait times of at least a year, and sometimes more than two and a half years. She understands that applicants “get anxious, they want to see their family members or they want to see their cases resolved and they want to get to where they’re going.

“Right now, it’s been even more difficult than it has been before…so, have patience,” she advised those who are seeking legal residency in the United States.

While she does some pro bono representation, most of Gontaryuk’s clients, who include authorized and unauthorized immigrants, can afford an attorney in private practice. For the segment of the community that is not able to afford private legal representation, community organizations offer options. 

Gontaryuk served for several years as the supervising attorney for LALDEF, which offers a free legal consultation to low- and moderate-income individuals. LALDEF’s Christ described costs for legal representation as low, compared to services provided by attorneys in private practice. LALDEF provides some legal services for free. 

El Centro, too, provides legal services to immigrants at costs Hernandez described as “reasonable.” An initial consultation is $50, and Hernandez emphasized that El Centro’s legal team is clear with clients about a case’s chances of success, so they won’t spend money fruitlessly.

Both Hernandez and Gontaryuk highlighted that foreign-born people can be deceived by those who misrepresent their qualifications to provide immigration advice or services. They often call themselves “notaries,” although a person commissioned as a notary public in New Jersey is not permitted to act as an immigration consultant or give legal advice on immigration matters. Clients have come to Gontaryuk’s practice after such individuals have taken money from them to inexpertly file immigration applications. The applications were then denied, and the clients placed into legal proceedings in which a judge rules whether they may be removed from the United States. 

At that point, “the client realizes they actually need a lawyer to be able to represent them properly,” Gontaryuk said. “It’s just terrible. They get poor advice, they lose money, they lose time, and sometimes they lose certain advantages that they have that they would have had otherwise.”


Unauthorized immigrants are not eligible for a social security number, but some—like dependents or spouses of U.S. citizens or authorized immigrants—are eligible for an individual taxpayer identification number, a nine-digit number issued by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service that helps individuals comply with the U.S. tax laws, and access banking services.

Standard driver’s licenses and identification cards are available to all New Jersey residents, regardless of immigration status, per a New Jersey law that took effect in 2021. While those licenses will not suffice as identification for boarding domestic flights after
the country’s REAL ID requirements are fully enforced starting in 2025, the standard licences do allow people to drive legally, and they serve as photo identification when needed.

Waldemar Ronquillo, a community activist, helps unauthorized immigrants apply for driver’s licenses, at no cost. He believes that licensed, insured drivers make everyone in Trenton safer: Not only are drivers less likely to get into accidents if they understand traffic laws, but if they do get into an accident, insurance protects everyone involved. “It’s protecting the entire city,” he said.

For people who do not want to drive, or cannot supply the documentation needed to apply for a driver’s license, Mercer County Area Community ID Cards serve as proof of identity and residence. The card, available for a small fee, “extends access to basic service to populations that that don’t always get access to those services because of lack of identification,” said Christ at LALDEF. Those services include public schools and libraries, law enforcement, health care, and recreation. Christ said that helping people obtain community ID cards is one of the most popular services that LALDEF provides. TASK also assists clients with this, and with applying for driver’s licenses.

Health Care

“We’re doing a lot of community outreach and education related to health, and especially Covid and now monkeypox, as well,” said Christ. She noted that Covid-19 vaccinations are available at LALDEF, which also offers a “virtual exam room” for someone to interact with virtually with medical professionals and community health workers. 

“Every Thursday and Friday, Catholic Charities has what they call a ‘nurse navigator’ who comes here,” said El Centro’s Hernandez. The nurse navigator interviews people about health issues, and connects them to services, like the New Jersey Hospital Care Payment Assistance Program (Charity Care) that provides inpatient and outpatient services at acute-care hospitals for low-income New Jerseyans. El Centro also typically offers an annual health fair, and that was how Ana Gramajo found her primary health care provider.

Bright Futures for Immigrant Beneficiaries

The services provided by Trenton-area organizations can equip immigrants to achieve their goals. Asked about her plans for the future, El Centro client Gramajo said, through a translator, “I have many! My initial ones are that I’d like to continue my studies and be able to establish a career.” She has her sights on attending Mercer County Community College, and is interested in clerical jobs and social work. She hopes one day to own her own home. 

Mr. B, the Haitian immigrant, said he moved to the United States in pursuit of “a better life,” and that he has found it with help from the TASK team. He and his wife work as cleaners, and his two sons attend community college. TASK staff and volunteers have worked closely with Mr. B to help him find a spot in an affordable Certified Nursing Assistant training program, so he can move toward his goal to become a nurse.

“They take care of me!” Mr. B enthused of the TASK staff. He said he has benefited from the ESL program, and he has been a grateful recipient of gifts provided for his family through TASK’s program that distributes donated gifts at holidays.

“The United States is a great country,” Mr. B said. “The sky is your limit. If you come here, you can study, you can work to make money.”  

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