Attorney Carmen M. Chavez, the executive director of San Diego's Casa Cornelia Law Center, has dedicated her career to defending the rights of poor immigrants, something she considers to be a fundamental element in achieving a society of peace and justice.

"When there's deprivation of rights under the law, society can destroy itself, it becomes weaker and cannot sustain the challenges that time and circumstance bring to a country," Chavez told Efe.

Casa Cornelia, which has 16 full-time employees and relies on the cooperation of about 200 volunteer lawyers, provides free legal services to the victims of human and civil rights violations serving between 500 and 800 people per year.

Chavez, the San Diego-born daughter of Mexican immigrants, feels that it is very important to spread the word that there are remedies under the law that give certain immigrants the chance to legally remain in the United States.

"The problem is that normally they don't have access to lawyers who know the system to allow them to be free of persecution, torture or even death" in their home countries, Chavez said.

The attorney said she feels it is key for the media to publicize the available resources for victims of civil or human rights abuses, something that helps them navigate the complexities of the U.S. immigration system.

One of the most important areas of the center's work is asylum cases, Chavez said.

"Commonly, this is political asylum, but it's more than that. It's an option for a person who's afraid of returning to his country of origin because he would be persecuted, tortured or even killed for his political opinion, religion, race, ethnic group, nationality, or for being a member of some particular group," she said.

"In our program, the majority of asylum cases are of African origin, like Somalis and Ethiopians, but we also have people from China, Iraq, Iran, Latin America and even Mexico," Chavez said.

For her work with immigrant communities, Chavez on Wednesday will receive the Ocean Leaf Spirit Prize, which is awarded by the Somali Family Services organization.

Other cases being handled by Casa Cornelia - which proclaims its mission to be rooted in the tradition of service of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and that of its founder, Cornelia Connelly - involve domestic violence, which allows victims to present their requests for legal immigration without having to depend on their partners.

"A victim of violence is isolated in society, 'closed off' until there's an emergency situation, or when they have a deportation procedure it's the judge who puts them in contact with us," Chavez said.