A Camden native inspired to help migrant workers

When Camden native Iveliz Crespo was a child, she saw undocumented immigrants struggle and knew she wanted to help. Now an attorney, Crespo represents migrant farm workers in a range of matters.
When Camden native Iveliz Crespo was a child, she saw undocumented immigrants struggle and knew she wanted to help. Now an attorney, Crespo represents migrant farm workers in a range of matters. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 21, 2016

When Iveliz Crespo was a child growing up in East Camden, many of her neighbors were undocumented immigrants who faced discrimination. Some struggled with learning English or had bosses who cheated them out of earnings because they believed undocumented workers wouldn't report problems.

Those stories inspired Crespo, who was raised by a single mother who came to New Jersey from Puerto Rico as a young adult. She decided early on that she wanted to help people like the immigrants in her Cramer Hill neighborhood.

"At the time I had no concept of what a lawyer was, other than the idea that they right wrongs," she said. "Of course, now I know it's more complicated than that."

Crespo, 26, is an attorney with South Jersey Legal Services, representing migrant farm workers in matters that range from wage disputes to human trafficking concerns. A graduate of Camden's Brimm Medical Arts High School, Crespo got her law degree from Rutgers-Camden School of Law by the time she was 24. She is licensed to practice in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

"I told myself when I was younger that I would do something I loved," said Crespo, who lives in Philadelphia. "But now that I meet so many people who aren't happy with the jobs they have, I can't believe I get to do this."

Crespo's mother knew little English when she came to New Jersey at age 20. She became a certified nursing assistant and often depended on relatives to help watch Crespo and her older brother and younger sister. Crespo learned English in Camden's schools.

When Crespo was in eighth grade, she attended a high school fair and met students from Brimm, one of the city's two magnet high schools. They told her about the science experiments they worked on, and the projects they had entered into fairs. Brimm also boasts a high college acceptance rate for its students.

At Brimm, Crespo loved working on science projects, but not for the science.

"At fairs, people would come up to me and ask me about it - and I would have to sell it to them," she said. "Until that point, it was rare for me to have a platform where people would listen to what I had to say. It was like making an argument."

After high school, Crespo attended Georgian Court University in Ocean County. Though she felt Brimm had challenged her and prepared her academically, Crespo said, she often felt lonely in college, where many of her private-school-educated classmates assumed she was "tough" because she was from Camden.

"I was shocked at people's perceptions of me," Crespo said. "People would say to me all the time, 'Did you ever see somebody get shot?' Or they'd ask me questions about drugs, as if I would know."

She also felt the economic differences between her and many of her classmates, who often enjoyed lavish vacations while she worked through holiday breaks. She noticed that some seemed to coast through classes, confident that they'd have job leads lined up for them through parental connections.

But Crespo had professors who took an interest in her, and encouraged her not to give up, she said. Over the years, she learned to embrace her background.

"I realized it didn't make me less," she said. "It made me more."

After graduation, Crespo clerked for a Gloucester County judge before joining South Jersey Legal Services last year. Doing outreach among potential clients, she sometimes walks into a trailer on a farm shared by nine men. Often, she said, the workers she meets are just grateful to have someone who can speak to them in Spanish.

"What I think about most is that no matter how hard they work, most of them will always be agricultural laborers," she said. "That doesn't have to be true for us in the United States. And I think that so many of us take that for granted."

asteele@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @AESteele

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