2023 Witkin Awards: Casa Cornelia Law Center

The Casa Cornelia Law Center Logo and text
A photo of Carmen Chavez, Executive Director of Casa Cornelia Law Center

Casa Cornelia Law Center was named a Witkin Award winner in 2023 for Excellence in Public Service. Casa Cornelia Law Center is a 501(c)(3) public interest law firm providing quality legal services to victims of human and civil rights violations. Casa Cornelia has a primary commitment to indigent persons within the immigrant community in Southern California. It seeks to educate others regarding the impact of immigration law and policy on the community and the public good. The mission and spirit of Casa Cornelia is rooted in the tradition of service of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and that of its founder, Cornelia Connelly. It encompasses the belief that God has chosen to need men and women in every age to reveal God’s love and to make known the reality of God’s saving presence through their service to others. Casa Cornelia seeks to foster a spirit of simplicity, honesty, kindness, and cheerfulness among colleagues and with those served. It has chosen Thomas More as the exemplar of these qualities to mark its practice of law.

Casa Cornelia Law Center was founded when the leadership of the Society requested that Ann M. Durst, a member of the Society and an attorney, explore the possibility of founding Casa Cornelia as a contemporary mission serving those in need throughout the southwest of the United States of America.

Sister Ann conducted a study along the Mexican-American border to determine the need for legal services among the immigrant community. Her travels brought her to San Diego in the summer of 1992. Here in San Diego, the busiest land border crossing in the world, was the place to begin the Society’s work for immigrants. On August 1, 1992, she was joined by Mary Wayne Gradon from the European Province of the Society. That day they signed the lease that made Casa Cornelia a reality.

Today, the need for Casa Cornelia’s pro bono legal services remains. Each year there are more children crossing the San Diego/Tijuana border. Victims of domestic violence continue to contact Casa Cornelia seeking safety for themselves and their children. And, as conflict worldwide evolves, so do the number of asylum seekers pursuing freedom from persecution. We hope to alleviate these injustices using our training as lawyers and our passion for serving those in need.

Casa Cornelia Law Center provides direct representation in humanitarian-based immigration applications, including asylum and related relief and protection, special immigrant juvenile status, U and T visas, and VAWA self-petitions and cancellation of removal.

Accepting the 2023 Bernard E. Witkin Award on behalf of Casa Cornelia Law Center is Carmen Chavez, Executive Director at Casa Cornelia Law Center. For the last 23 years, she has worked at Casa Cornelia in various capacities, initially as an Equal Justice Works Fellow, then Staff Attorney/Program Director/Associate Director, and currently serves as the Executive Director overseeing a staff of 28 and a volunteer base of over 400. As a Staff Attorney and then Associate Director, she provided direct affirmative and defensive representation of asylum seekers, undocumented victims of crime, and unaccompanied children from around the world, and mentored volunteers handling cases before the USCIS, EOIR and the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Ms. Chavez, a native San Diegan and resident of San Ysidro, has served on task forces, committees, working groups and has given numerous presentations and trainings to the legal community, social workers, law enforcement, students, community groups, faith community, parents and clients. Ms. Chavez is a California licensed attorney and a graduate of Loyola Law School. To learn more about Casa Cornelia Law Center visit our website at www.CasaCornelia.org.