A Few Words About Us

About El Centro

El Centro Hispanoamericano, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, Department of Justice (DOJ) recognized organization, located in Plainfield, New Jersey. Created in 1984, El Centro has a history of more than three decades of providing legal, humanitarian, and educational assistance to low-income immigrants.

El Centro represents clients before the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), in Immigration Court, and the Board of Immigration Appeals. We provide representation in legal matters such as Family-based Petitions, Green Card applications (Adjustment of Status), Consular Processing for those abroad, Waivers of Inadmissibility, U Visas for Crime victims, T Visas for Human Trafficking victims, Self-Petitions for Domestic Violence Survivors (VAWA), requests for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), as well as Temporary Protected Status (TPS), Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and NACARA applications, among others.

We represent people without regard to country of origin, but we primarily serve the Spanish-speaking community. All of our staff members are fluent in Spanish.

In addition to legal assistance, El Centro offers English as a Second Language, Citizenship, and Literacy for Spanish Speakers courses as part of its effort to help immigrants better themselves and continue to be productive members of their community. We also run an emergency food pantry for those in need and advocate for those seeking services from public and private agencies.

OUR TEAM
BOARD OF TRUSTEES

Laura Lobe, Chair

Laura's immigrant experiences guide her commitment to social justice and to work with the immigrant community. She immigrated from Uruguay in 2001 and lived in Florida for a number of years. Like many immigrants, she worked in restaurants and cleaned houses. It was not until she started taking classes at a community college that she became involved in pro-immigrant advocacy efforts. Laura left sunny Florida for New Jersey when she transferred to Columbia University, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree with honors in Political Science. She was a Clark Foundation and Program for Academic Leadership and Service Scholar.

Laura has worked and volunteered with several nonprofit immigration services providers in different capacities, including being a DOJ Fully Accredited Representative at Catholic Charities Diocese of Metuchen. She has extensive experience in immigration law and has represented individuals in processes such as Naturalizations, Adjustment of Status, Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Self-petitions, U-Visas for crime victims, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, including many complex immigration claims. 

She has been volunteering with El Centro since 2011 and part of the Board of Trustees since 2012. At El Centro, she assists the legal team with casework, including helping to draft applications, motions, and petitions, as well as help screen immigrants for relief. She is also involved in the legal program's protocols, training, and outreach events, including free screening clinics and application assistance workshops, among other projects. Laura is also involved in communications at El Centro and a variety of other tasks.

Laura believes in helping others who are in the same shoes she was in just years ago. Her love for immigration law took her to pursue a law degree from Syracuse University. In her free time, she loves to travel and spend time with her husband, John, and their rescue dog, Bullet.

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.

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.

Richard F. McKeon

Rich McKeon received his B.A. in History from Fairfield University and his M.B.A. in Management from Fordham University.  He is currently a J.D. Candidate at New York Law School.  He started his career in banking, but his passion for volunteer work led to an eventual career in philanthropy.  He worked in corporate philanthropy (Fleet Bank/Bank of America), a philanthropic consulting firm (Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors) and a traditional foundation (Helmsley Charitable Trust). Throughout his career, he oversaw over $250 million in giving to nonprofits in areas as diverse as education, youth development, affordable housing, job training, medical research, disaster relief and international conservation.  He has been committed to nonprofit board service throughout his career and currently serves on the boards of Youth Represent, which provides free legal services to disadvantaged youth in NYC, and El Centro Hispanoamericano.  Witnessing the great work these organizations do was one motivator for Rich’s attending law school.  Rich lives in New Jersey with his wife and daughter.

Orlando Castillo

Jessica M. Estevez

Maria Dolores Grana

Norman Sepulveda

Susan Vice