Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Injustice

Attorney Elizabeth Lopez Named KPBS Community Hero For Her Work With Asylum Seekers

San Diego Attorney Elizabeth Lopez is the KPBS and National Conflict Resolution Center's Community Hero, selected for her pro bono immigration work with individuals fleeing persecution in their home countries and seeking asylum in San Diego and Imperial counties.

“Elizabeth is an absolute asset to her clients and to us,” said Kathi Anderson, executive director for Survivors of Torture International, who worked with Lopez and nominated her for the honor. “She serves survivors of torture, asylum seekers, those who are detained, those who would not otherwise have legal representation. She really is an unsung hero in our community for the issue of immigration.”

Lopez founded the Southern California Immigration Project in 2015, a nonprofit that provides free or low-cost legal services to asylum seekers, predominantly from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Senegal, Cameroon, Rwanda, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Egypt. She works out of her home in Mission Hills, and, until recently, was a one-woman operation. This summer she shared her home office with four interns who are also working with immigrants.

Asylum seekers, like refugees, often suffer from persecution in their native countries, but their cases are processed differently. Refugees earn their legal status outside the United States, while asylum seekers begin the legal process within U.S. borders. As a result, asylum seekers do not receive the same level of support here as refugees, according to Anderson.

Understanding the level of need in this community spurred Lopez to concentrate her practice on asylum seekers. In fact, Lopez funds the nonprofit with her own money and tears up when she talks about why.

“Knowing that there are so many people from this population that are unrepresented, I felt I had to put my money where my mouth was,” said Lopez, who estimated that only 4 percent of asylum seekers win their case without an attorney. “They can’t go through this process without an attorney. And I decided that’s just what I had to do. I’ve found there are certain things that are put in front of you in your life that you can not turn a blind eye to. I really felt it was something I had to do, that I was called to do.”

Often her clients have no family members here and Lopez becomes like family to them. Such was the case with Shyma Eweedah, one of Lopez’s first asylum cases when she worked at the Casa Cornelia Law Center in 2008. Eweedah came to the United States with her sister, both vowing not to return home to Saudi Arabia, where as Palestinian refugees and as women, they were not afforded the same rights as Saudi citizens. Eweedah and her sister did not enjoy the same access to public education, social benefits and could not travel without a male guardian.

“From a political perspective, without (Elizabeth’s) help, I would have been stateless for the rest of my life,” said Eweedah, who has stayed in touch with Lopez, inviting her to her wedding and baby showers. “She did not just change my life - and made it literally brighter - she also changed the lives of future generations.”


San Diego News Now podcast branding

San Diego news; when you want it, where you want it. Get local stories on politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings. Hosted by Anica Colbert and produced by KPBS, San Diego and the Imperial County's NPR and PBS station.

  • Need help keeping up with the news that matters most? Get the day's top news — ranging from local to international — straight to your inbox each weekday morning.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Curious San Diego banner

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.