By Cailin Riley on July 19, 2023
For more than 20 years, OLA — the Latino-focused advocacy nonprofit that serves eastern Long Island — has been working to support, assist, create positive change and seek justice for immigrants, minorities and other underserved members of the East End community.
Last month, the organization bolstered its ability to continue that mission with the hiring of two new attorneys, Lucia Damerau and Wanda Sanchez-Day, who OLA Executive Director Minerva Perez says will greatly enhance the nonprofit’s ability to serve and advocate for families and individuals who stand to benefit from the crucial support and safety net OLA provides.
Civil rights attorney Sanchez Day was hired as general counsel/senior policy counsel for OLA, while immigration attorney Damerau will serve as the organization’s director of immigration legal services. Their addition will further strengthen OLA’s social justice advocacy and its ability to provide opportunities for low-income East End immigrants to receive pro bono immigration legal services.
Sanchez-Day has an impressive and extensive resume, with a background in nonprofit management and federal and state civil and criminal defense litigation, in addition to experience seeking international and nationwide law and policy reforms that empower vulnerable communities. She has served as chief legal officer and national legal director for United Sikhs, a United Nations-affiliated nonprofit focusing on international humanitarian aid and human rights advocacy. Since 2021, Sanchez-Day has been a certified New York State Department of Education impartial hearing officer presiding in New York City special education due process hearings.
She has also represented indigent families and individuals in summary eviction proceedings as a housing staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society of New York, served as vice president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys Civil Practice and Co-Chaired the ALAA/LAS Management Hiring and Affirmative Action Committee.
Since last year, she has served as co-chair of the Puerto Rico Task Force of the NYC Bar Association. She has served on the board of the Puerto Rican Bar Association and currently serves on the board of the Latino Judges Association Foundation.
Sanchez-Day describes herself as someone who has been “an advocate for all of my life,” following in the footsteps of her father. She said she experienced the effects of hate crimes firsthand during her upbringing in the city, and remembers watching her father recover from a racially motivated beating that temporarily left him without the ability to speak for several months, when she was just 5 years old.
“I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer,” she said, adding that witnessing and experiencing first hand how hard it was to combat systemic racism and gain access to basic services motivated her to choose a career path that would enable her to tackle those inequities.
While Sanchez-Day has put her law degree to use in several varied ways and in different areas, she said there has been a common thread from the start.
“My trajectory through law has been defending communities and people against injustice,” she said.
Damerau comes to OLA after serving as the Fragomen Fellow at the City Bar Justice Center, a pro bono affiliate of the New York City Bar Association, where she represented immigrant clients in removal proceedings and with applications for immigration relief such as asylum and family-based petitions. She’s also a 2023 recipient of the National LGBTQ+ Bar’s “40 Best LGBTQ+ Lawyers Under 40” award.
Prior to joining Fragomen, Damerau served as a staff attorney with the Immigration Advocacy Project at Legal Services of New York City, where she represented low-income individuals and crime survivors seeking immigration relief, in removal proceedings, and in custody and guardianship proceedings.
In both positions she also managed, organized, and led pro bono clinics and mentored pro bono attorneys.
Damerau was also a staff attorney with the Immigration Intervention Project at Sanctuary for Families. She has conducted numerous community presentations to educate immigrants about their rights, immigration policy, immigration remedies, and resources available to community members. Damerau earned both her undergraduate and law degrees from Syracuse University. She is originally from Guatemala, but has been a longtime resident of Queens.
Damerau said she joined OLA because she was drawn to the spirit of the organization and saw herself as a good fit.
“I saw they were self-starters,” she said. “I love that OLA has such passion, and the more I learned about them, I saw that they have come up with a lot of their own programs and have created things they needed.
“I’m an immigrant myself, too, and a lot of the staff are foreign born or have parents from other countries,” she continued. “I see the personal connection and unique bond they have with the community and clients. I think I can bring the same passion. I’m not a person who sits back and waits for things to be better. I could see how they were so eager to help the community and make systems better for the community.”
Demerau pointed out that many of the people OLA assists and fights for don’t have the means or the voice — or the English-speaking skills — to advocate for themselves and their families, and she’s eager to fill that void.
“They need somebody who is passionate and strong-headed to be able to advocate for them and get the best results,” she said.
In her new role, Damerau will oversee OLA’s newly launched immigration legal services program, developing policies and procedures for the program, providing legal counsel to clients and their families applying for immigration relief, and delivering educational presentations to community members.
As senior policy counsel, Sanchez Day will work closely with Perez on advocacy strategies to address unjust or unlawful policies and practices of local institutions that adversely affect East End Latinos and/or immigrants. As general counsel, she will provide counsel and guidance to OLA on all legal matters, including those related to personnel, policies, procedures, rules, and regulations.
Perez spoke about what it means to have Sanchez-Day and Damerau on staff, what they will bring to OLA, and why having them is so key to the work the organization does.
“There are so many spaces where the law, and civil rights law, in particular, was showing itself as the nut to crack,” she said. “Where we’d be working on how we’re going to approach this potential policy deficit or gray area, and what is the right thing to do here based on the law, and how do we move forward so OLA’s work is couched in something real and consistent. It’s not just about how we feel, but what is the ground underneath us, and how do we approach it in a way that’s appropriate for the region.”
Whether it’s addressing the issue of illegal lockouts — when families and individuals are either unlawfully evicted or are having their water, electricity and other vital services shut off in an attempt to evict them or force them from their homes — or creating better systems of communication with local law enforcement, or advocating in school districts, Perez said that the addition of Damerau and Sanchez-Day to the OLA team will greatly ramp up with the organization is able to do.
“We have now essentially a pro-bono law firm,” she said.
“Wanda and Lucía bring tremendous expertise and a deep understanding of the issues that immigrant community members face here on the East End,” Perez said. “Their work has already begun to have a positive impact here. Along with the rest of our dedicated team, these two attorneys are helping to create meaningful and lasting change that will benefit our entire region.”