A red car speeds along, bearing a license plate that reads “Flama” and a driver dressed head-to-toe in red. Lilia Velasquez—the “Flame of Justice”—is rushing to federal court to champion human rights. Velasquez got her nickname from her fellow teachers, while working in Latin America with a program developed by the California Western School of Law to teach the American adversarial system. The Flame’s heat for justice is fed by a constant stream of immigration horror stories.
There’s the woman from Guatemala who asked Velasquez to represent her in an asylum case. The woman and her 3-year-old daughter were visiting her parents when guerrillas knocked on the door demanding food. The family told the guerrillas there was no food. With that, they broke down the door and massacred both of her parents. They gang-raped the woman, slashed her stomach open and left her to bleed to death. Her daughter hid in a clay oven and got help from a neighbor after the guerrillas left. And now the U.S. government wants to send the woman and child back to Guatemala, the scene of the crime.
Velasquez says her first career in social work gave her “sensitivity for dealing with people, especially women who have been battered and women who are victims of rape.” Velasquez saw, though, that many of the problems she dealt with couldn’t be solved through counseling and had to go to the courts for resolution. So she decided to go to law school. As an attorney, she says, “stories that come to my office on a regular basis are very, very compelling,” and she has become an international expert “because I happen to represent many of those refugees who come to my office seeking legal assistance.”
Velasquez is particularly interested in cases of human trafficking for forced prostitution or labor. She says her expertise in human trafficking came to her the same way as most of her legal interests do: “In the form of a person who had a problem.”
About six years ago, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney brought two Ukrainian women to her office and begged Velasquez to take their case. The women were indispensable to the prosecution and conviction of a trafficker, but they were in danger of being deported. Velasquez was shocked to discover that human trafficking was “not confined to those faraway places like Cambodia and Thailand and Nepal,” but happens right here in America, too.
Then the ACLU brought Velasquez a second case: Raina, a teenage victim of trafficking who had no lawyer. They asked for Velasquez’s help pro bono. “A 15-year-old kid? From Mexico? Illiterate?” Velasquez asks. “How can you say no to those cases?” Velasquez describes Raina as “the poster child for trafficking here in San Diego.” After that case, word spread about her work, and people began calling for help with trafficking cases. It’s a perfect kind of case for an immigration attorney, because when victims finish testifying in court, the next step is protecting their immigration rights and getting them a visa.
Velasquez says these cases are very close to her heart. “One cannot imagine a more vulnerable victim than a victim of trafficking,” Velasquez says. “They are probably in violation of law. They are here illegally, they are completely disconnected, they don’t know their rights. They are under threat. They are often brutally beaten. So who’s going to represent them?” Perhaps a crusader for justice like The Flame.