By Andrea Lopez-Villafaña
Immigration attorney Elizabeth Lopez, who specializes in representing asylum seekers from Africa, is embarking on a new project to help an often overlooked group of asylum seekers – survivors of female genital mutilation.
As the founder of the nonprofit organization Southern California Immigration Project, Lopez sought out to address the needs of immigrants seeking asylum in the United States, as well as bring awareness to the lasting effects of FGM.
Now, she is seeking funding for a new program, Flourish – a female genital mutilation/cutting program – that will work to raise awareness of FGM, train medical professionals on working with survivors, and provide counseling services to survivors.
“They have nowhere to go to openly talk about the problems that they have and there’s a lot of physical and psychological problems that go along with FGC (female genital cutting) survivors,” Lopez said.
According to the World Health Organization, FGM is concentrated in countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, where more than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut.
The practice includes cutting or other procedures that injure the female genital organs for non-medical reasons, according to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Lopez, who works with hundreds of asylum seekers, found that several of her clients were survivors of this cultural practice.
Two years ago, she decided to research groups that help survivors, however, after not finding a specific group that addressed the problems that survivors endure, she decided to create her own program.
“There are a ton of groups that are there to stop the practice, I’m saying fine stop the practice but what do we do about the women that are already here?” Lopez said.
With Flourish, Lopez hopes to create support groups for women in an effort to provide them with a safe place to talk about their experiences.
“If I can just empower the women, it’s really what I want,” she said.
Although Lopez does not plan on running the program herself, she saw a need and decided to do something about it for women like her clients.
That drive to address the needs of vulnerable communities is something that has guided Lopez throughout her career and life.
Originally from Orange County, Lopez grew up in a Catholic home and attended an all girls school Catholic school until she graduated and earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California.
Lopez wanted to be a writer, however, she developed an interest for law and decided to pursue that career instead.
“I’ve always been for the underdog. It’s the idealistic idea of most people that start law school, you want to make a change, you want to help people, make a difference,” Lopez said.
She worked as an employment law attorney for about 15 years where she worked with clients who suffered employee discrimination or sexual harassment.
Years after doing that, Lopez became a lobbyist and worked with several interfaith lobbying groups and it was then that she came to learn of the struggles immigrant individuals faced.
Lopez said she saw how vulnerable immigrants were and how they were was a definite disregard for their rights.
“That’s when I realized that we needed people in the trenches doing work with immigration,” Lopez said.
She began to work for Casa Cornelia Law Center, law firm that provides pro bono legal services, in 2008 and began to work asylum cases.
While working there as the pro bono director and asylum director, Lopez found that there were inmates in Calexico that needed representation, but the lack of funding prevented them from going to help those individuals.
“It just broke my heart and that’s when I decided I just can’t hear this anymore and not do something,” Lopez said.
As a result of that, in 2015, she founded the Southern California Immigration Project, a nonprofit that offers free or low-cost legal services to asylum seekers.
Last year, Lopez was named KPBS and National Conflict and Resolution Center’s Community Hero for her pro bono immigration work.
Lopez recently moved from working out of her home office use to an office at the edge of Little Italy, where she continues her work with asylum seekers.