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Nonprofit provides legal services for immigrants

REGION — For the immigrant community in San Diego, navigating the country’s complex legal system can pose a difficult, and sometimes insurmountable barrier.

And because of their economic status, age, or their detention at a border facility, many are not able to easily access an attorney.

Casa Cornelia seeks to fulfill that need. A San Diego-based nonprofit, the 25-year organization provides free legal services for those eligible for humanitarian immigration relief in Southern California. According to Executive Director Carmen Chavez, Casa Cornelia serves asylum-seekers, victims of crimes such as domestic violence or human trafficking, and children who have been abandoned, abused or neglected.

Casa Cornelia staff members work with young clients at the nonprofit’s San Diego office. Casa Cornelia is the only free legal service organization in the county that provides direct legal representation for unaccompanied, detained children. Courtesy photo

The nonprofit has served about 2,200 people so far in 2018, and about 300 in the North County region.

The North County Amnesty International Chapter honored Casa Cornelia in early December with their Digna Ochoa Humanitarian Defender award, which recognizes an individual or group for their work protecting human rights in the North County community.

Casa Cornelia is assisted in its efforts by between 200 and 300 volunteer attorneys, volunteer interpreters and translators at any given time, from across San Diego, which allows them to “multiply exponentially our reach to all corners of the county,” Chavez said.

The organization supports a full-time staff of 28 individuals, nine of which are attorneys. Chavez referred to staff attorneys and volunteers as “zealous advocates for our clients.”

“(They) always have been, always will be,” Chavez said.

The nonprofit operates with a budget of just over $2 million. It garners financial support from a yearly fundraising event called La Mancha Awards, as well as individual donations and grants, such as the United Nation’s Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, a fund that assists different entities in helping victims of torture and their families.

The center has served thousands of clients since it opened in 1992, responding in kind as policies and procedures for immigrants, as well as social climates abroad have changed. In 2014, Chavez noted a marked increase in the number of children attempting to flee violent circumstances in Central America. From 2012 to 2014, the number of children served by the organization doubled from 317 to 633 clients.

Clients from across the globe have sought out its services — individuals from countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia and former Eastern Bloc nations. Clients are often referred to the organization by other local agencies, community leaders, law enforcement officials or victim advocates.

“We’ve had persons from all over the world who are hoping to find freedom and safety,” Chavez said.

In addition to serving immigrant clients already in the area, staff and attorneys will also screen individuals at the Otay Mesa detention facility, to determine if they are legally eligible to be granted asylum.

Staff are often working with clients who have experienced trauma, which can be exacerbated by their experience in the detention centers.

“Their human spirit has been damaged,” Chavez said. “And they’re hoping to find safe haven and an opportunity for a new life … they yearn for that.”

Casa Cornelia is the only free legal service organization in San Diego County that provides direct legal representation for unaccompanied, detained children.

Chavez said that working and communicating with younger clients can sometimes be a challenge, particularly when it comes to communication. Although the various volunteers with the organization speak a combined 45 plus different languages and dialects, there might be the added difficulty of clients speaking an indigenous dialect.

Chavez described Casa Cornelia staff as the “legal first responders” for their clients. They guide individuals in the process of obtaining asylum, after which they are “given orientation as to the next steps,” whether that may be obtaining a work permit, determining eligibility to become permanent residents, or pursuing citizenship. For these purposes, Casa Cornelia will help refer clients to other organizations in the county.

“We are focused on (immigrants) that are currently at risk, currently detained or who have been victimized” Chavez said. “We help them with the first visa application or the first asylum application … We secure their legal status.”