A Few Words About Us

About El Centro

El Centro Hispanoamericano, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) recognized organization, located in Plainfield, New Jersey. Created in 1984, El Centro has a 35-year history of counseling and representation of low-income immigrants, including the undocumented.

El Centro represents clients before the Citizen and Immigration Service (CIS), in Immigration Court, and in appeals covering matters such as political asylum, cancellation of removal, temporary protected status, naturalization, and self-petitioning aliens under the Violence against Women Act of 1994. We represent people without regard to country of origin, but we primarily serve the Spanish-speaking community in the central New Jersey region. All of our staff members are fluent in Spanish.

In addition to legal assistance, El Centro offers citizenship and ESL courses as part of its effort to help immigrants become productive members of their community. We also run a small emergency food pantry for those in need and provide personal “advocates” for those seeking services from public and private agencies.


Laura Lobe, Chair

  • BA from Columbia University in Political Science
  • Catholic Charities of New Brunswick, BIA accredited

Erik Werfel, Secretary

In 1987, shortly after the bar exam, Erik read in the Star-Ledger that the Center for Central American Refugees (El Centro) needed people to teach the civics and English classes required by the 1986 immigrant amnesty program. He quickly volunteered to teach, a decision inspired, in part, by the fact that his family had come to the United States as refugees a couple generations back and, says Erik, “I don't believe in pulling up the ladder behind you.”

Volunteering at El Centro also gave him opportunities to improve his Spanish through interacting with native Spanish speakers. Erik has been very engaged in El Centro's services and programs over the decades of volunteer work. He continued teaching ESL after the amnesty program ended. As soon as former El Centro executive director Esther Chavez discovered Erik was an attorney, she engaged him in pro bono asylum cases. Soon Esther also convinced Erik to conduct charlas in Spanish. He taught computer literacy and word processing classes in the computer lab. Recalling his many roles at El Centro, Erik says , “I've translated personal statements, birth certificates, and marriage licenses from Spanish to English. I've also played Santa many times at the Fiesta Navidena.”

Erik's first job out of law school was as legal editor at CCH, a legal and financial publisher. CCH was a loose-leaf reporting service. Erik became involved in a project to digitize CCH publications, releasing them on CD and online. Erik had studied computer science in college and he became very good at it. As a result, he has moved into IT. He now works for Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen and Loewy, a large law firm specializing in immigration law.  Erik's title is Senior Software Engineer. Erik met his wife Loretta at CCH.

Bonnie Ruggiero, Treasurer

  • Financial consultant to nonprofits and small businesses
  • Owner, Taxes Etc LLC
  • Tax preparer for 16 years and IRS Enrolled Agent
  • Active in Presbytery of Elizabeth, serving on several committees
  • Vice chair of board at Stony Point Center
  • Lives in Scotch Plains, NJ

Brooks Smith

Brooks went to college and seminary in the sixties. While in seminary in Chicago, Brooks received six months of community organizing training. He employed his community organizing skills in his pastoral work, first as associate pastor in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio and also in Allentown, Pa. The Allentown Presbyterian Church had 3000 members and a strong commitment to the community. Under Brooks' leadership the church organized the Hispanic American Organization, formed a housing corporation and built a half-way house.

Brooks and Gail moved to North Plainfield in 1978 where he was pastor at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church for twenty-nine years. In 1984, Brooks traveled to Nicaragua with Witness for Peace. “I've been involved with friends and organizations from Nica ever since,” Brooks explains. Brooks' and Gail's younger son also volunteered for four years there and married a Nica. (Brooks and Gail have two sons and three grandchildren.)

Brooks helped establish El Centro in 1984. He's served off and on in various capacities over the years. In 1995, he received a Masters degree from New School University in Non Profit Management. Subsequently he worked part-time for five years with The Resource Foundation, raising money for NGOs in Latin America, especially Central America and Ecuador.

Brooks retired in 2007—but he's continued his pastoral work, serving as interim pastor at two churches, preaching occasionally, and assisting the pastor of the Bound Brook Presbyterian Church.Brook's wife Gail served as guidance counselor and then director of guidance at Hillsborough High School. She was also a counselor at Watchung Hills High School. Brooks and Gail love to garden. “I also play tennis and write a weekly one-page meditation titled 'Poetry, Prayer, Politics,'” Brooks adds.

Rich McKeon

Rich grew up in Connecticut, outside of New Haven, the eleventh of thirteen children. “Yes, my parents were crazy and we lived in a shoe. Eight boys, five girls, same parents,” Rich explains. After college at Fairfield University, he began a career in banking, first at Chase and later with Fleet/Bank of America. Rich managed bank branches for years.

After Rich earned a Masters in Business Administration at Fordham University, he moved into Community Relations, managing the bank's grant-making to nonprofits in New York City and Westchester County. His work involved funding education, youth development, arts and culture and economic development (affordable housing, job training, etc.).

Later, Rich worked with a community development financial institution managing a small business program in Lower Manhattan after 9/11. Returning to philanthropic work, he worked in grant-making for Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. He became involved in education work, mental health needs and disaster recovery (including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita). Rich's next professional position was at the Helmsley Trust where he oversaw grant-making in education, medical research and conservation. He was instrumental in founding conservation programs in Ecuador, Mexico and Madagascar. His work involved traveling to Mexico and Ecuador fairly regularly.

Rich's passion, though, was in the education program. His work funded K-12 education throughout the nation as well as postsecondary education, granting $35 million annually. Most of this work focused on improving education systems so that more students, especially low-income and minority students, received the support they needed. Rich also serves on the board of Youth Represent, a group located in NYC that provides free legal services for disadvantaged youth in NYC. Recently he returned to banking, now with M&T doing lending to businesses and nonprofits.Rich and his wife Olivia moved to Basking Ridge in 1998. They have a daughter now attending Ithaca College. “I enjoy skiing, tennis (sometimes with Brooks), basketball, biking, the beach and a good beer,” Rich reports. He says he' inspired by the work that El Centro does and looks forward to serving on its board.

Oscar Arriaza

Orlando Castillo

John Donnelly

Jessica M. Estevez

Maria Dolores Grana