SAN DIEGO — Sister Elizabeth Lopez, SSS, is an attorney who practices immigration law, and a member of the Sisters of Social Service.
Born in Montebello, Calif., she graduated from Western State University College of Law in Fullerton in 1987. She passed the bar and was sworn in as an attorney in 1989.
Sister Lopez is executive director of the Southern California Immigration Project, a San Diego-based nonprofit law center that she founded in 2015 to provide pro bono legal services to survivors of human rights violations.
In 2018, she fulfilled a lifelong dream of entering religious life. She professed her first vows on Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2020, and renewed them on Pentecost of this year.
Question: How did you become an attorney?
Answer: While I was an undergrad at the University of Southern California, I worked at the law school and took paralegal classes. I got a job as a paralegal while I was still in college.
The attorney I worked for told me how bad it was to be a female attorney at that time, and I also saw how badly she was treated by male attorneys. I decided, “Phooey with this!” I withdrew my law school applications and got a job doing clerical work instead, but I just hated it. So, I decided to go to law school after all.
What appealed to me about being an attorney was what appeals to everyone when they start law school: I wanted to help people.
When did you first feel called to religious life?
Probably at age 7. Our family had been close to the Immaculate Heart Sisters in our parish. They were good, strong role models, and I really felt called.
But, as you get older, other things compete for your attention. At different times in my life, I found myself bargaining with God: “Okay, God, if I pass the bar, then I’ll get married. But, if I don’t pass the bar, I’ll become a nun.”
I ended up getting married. It wasn’t until I got divorced in 1997 that I said, “That’s it, I’m going to follow through with this dream of being a sister.” It had never gone away. The “Hound of Heaven” never stopped pursuing me. However, as a divorced woman, I had to get an annulment to enter religious life.
What attracted you to the Sisters of Social Service?
As most women do, I shopped around and visited with different orders. I really liked the Sisters of Social Service because I didn’t feel they were really “nunny.” They were professional women. They were doctors, social workers, lawyers, and just all different professions. I found that really intriguing.
Our charism, through our dedication to the Holy Spirit, is bringing God’s sanctifying love to the most vulnerable. Being an immigration attorney fit right into that. And, before I was an immigration attorney, I had practiced employment law and taken police brutality cases. So, I’ve always been defending the most vulnerable.
In what ways have you found that being an attorney and a religious sister complement one another?
As Sisters of Social Service, we believe in service first. And the same is true for me as an attorney. When you’re an attorney, clients are the boss, and you are their “servant.” Also, justice itself means to be right with God or to live right with one another and with creation. Both attorneys and religious sisters are working to achieve justice.
What does the Southern California Immigration Project do?
We represent detained asylum-seekers from Africa and members of the LGBT community who are fleeing persecution in their home countries. (The organization) was created because there wasn’t any nonprofit that steadily offered direct representation to detainees in the Imperial Valley. The Imperial Regional Detention Facility houses more than 700 people, so there are 700 unrepresented people out there. We do some work in Otay Mesa, but the majority of our cases are still in Imperial.
What have you found most rewarding about your legal work?
Probably just the fact that I’m able to truly change someone’s life. When I was handling police brutality or employment law cases, I could get my clients money. But ultimately, that didn’t fill the void or fix the wrong that had been done to them. With immigration law, I’m able to give them a place of safety and security where they can live their life to their full potential.
One of my clients told me once that I had helped not only her, but her entire family. She meant that, by winning her asylum case, she was able to stay here in the United States, go to school, find someone to marry and have kids. This wouldn’t have happened if she had stayed in her home country.
Does faith come up in your conversations with clients?
It definitely does. Most of them are Muslim, but they have a very strong faith. They’re constantly using the word “inshallah,” which means “if God wills it.” So many times, they’ll say, “I’m not worried. It’s God’s will and, whatever happens, I’ll be fine.”
What role does spirituality play in your work?
I’m always aware that my clients may never share their story with anyone else in the detail that they tell it to me. It’s pretty heavy sometimes, but I hold them in prayer while I’m working on the case. And I definitely pray a lot before trial.
I always say that the Southern California Immigration Project is a faith-based organization. It’s not because there’s any church giving money to finance it, but I run on faith that God will give me money when I need it. And He’s never let me down.