Latin American Coalition grows to meet demand

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In 2011, a group of six high school students from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools interrupted a speech by President Obama at the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza, the leading Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group in the U.S.

The students, volunteers with the Charlotte-based Latin American Coalition, were protesting the deportation and the resulting separation of immigrant families.

In June, Obama announced federal action to grant temporary status for some undocumented young immigrants, effective August 15.

“The new deferral is a step in the right direction for a permanent solution,” says Jess George, executive director of the Latino American Coalition.

Formed in 1990 to provide direct services to Latinos, the Coalition has grown dramatically, expanding the services it provides to meet rising demand, and also emerging in recent years as a leading statewide advocate for Latinos.

Operating with an annual budget of $1.1 million and a staff of 17 people, the Coalition provides direct serves to 8,000 people a year through its Immigrant Welcome Center, an effort launched in 2011 that provides crisis and support services for immigrant families, regardless of their documentation status.

In August, recognizing the work it does through the Welcome Center, the National Council of La Raza honored the Coalition with its 2012 Family Strengthening Award.

Creation of the Center reflected a strategy at the Coalition to integrate the direct services it provides to Latinos, George says.

Charlotte’s Latino population, currently 150,000, has grown at least 1,500 percent in the two decades since the Coalition was formed, she says.

And in the eight years since she joined the Coalition, she says, its budget and staff have more than quadrupled.

The Coalition’s one-year-old Immigrant Welcome Center includes a crisis intervention network that represents formal partnerships with a broad range of crisis agencies such as Loaves and Fishes, and Crisis Assistance Ministry.

The Center handles the intake of families that need food, clothing and rental assistance, and then connects them with the agencies that can provide the services they need.

The Center also provides a desk once a week in the Coalition’s lobby for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Department of Social Services, which schedules appointments there for anyone eligible for any social service benefits.

The Center also provides a victims assistance program that serves mainly victims of domestic violence, of wage theft by employers who deny payment to immigrant workers, of consumer fraud and identity theft, and of human trafficking and hate crimes.

And it provides a neighbor-to-neighbor resource center, staffed by volunteers, that includes computers, phone books and maps that clients can use to learn more about the community and services that are available.

The work of the center is closely tied to two other Coalition programs, including support services for workers, and an immigration law clinic.

In addition to direct services, the Coalition has lobbied actively in the state legislature, helping to stop 19 of 20 pieces of legislation in 2011 that were “explicitly anti-immigrant,” George says.

It also employs a full-time electoral organizer and a full-time youth organizer, and is working this year to register 5,000 new Latino voters in the state.

And it held its annual Latin American Festival in October.

The Coalition, George says, is working to meet “the most critical and urgent challenges of immigrant integration in North Carolina.”