LOS ANGELES — She spends her days preparing legal strategies to help undocumented immigrants stay in the country. But at any moment, Lizbeth Mateo could be picked up for deportation herself. She is an immigration lawyer with her own immigration lawyer.
Last month, Ms. Mateo was officially sworn in as a lawyer, taking an oath to uphold the United States Constitution. After years of flaunting her status as undocumented and openly defying immigration law, she is now part of the legal system and hopes to represent clients who, like her, entered the United States illegally.
Allowing undocumented immigrants to work as lawyers is a sign of just how far the acceptance of such immigrants has come in places like California. When Kevin de León, the leader of the California State Senate, presided over Ms. Mateo’s swearing-in ceremony, he called her the embodiment of the American dream.
But Ms. Mateo is setting out to practice law in a new era: President Trump, whose vows to seal off the border with a wall energized supporters, has made clear that all undocumented immigrants could be deported. Some immigrants have responded by going into hiding while others prepare to return home.
Ms. Mateo is among those confronting the administration even though doing so carries with it personal risk. She is regarded as a bold advocate by some and as a foolhardy provocateur by others because she left the country and returned illegally, daring immigration agents to detain her.
“I see activists who are well respected and seen as leaders in the community freaking out, and I’m like, ‘That’s not what we need right now,’” said Ms. Mateo, who was born in Oaxaca, Mexico. “Your job doesn’t allow you to be freaking out. What you need to do is reassure the community that we’re going to fight. At the end of the day we have no choice but to fight.”
But others say that should not be her role. “You’re taking the oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, while you are simultaneously breaking those laws,” said John C. Eastman, a constitutional law expert and the former dean of the law school at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. “You’re violating the oath of office from the moment you take it — that’s a real problem.”
Ms. Mateo, 33, is among a very small number of undocumented immigrants in the country to receive a law license, and one of even fewer to work as an immigration lawyer. Another is her own lawyer, Luis Angel Reyes Savalza, who is fighting for her to stay in the country.
In 2014, California became the only state in the country to allow undocumented immigrants to practice law. The next year, New York courts reached a similar conclusion. There is no official count of how many undocumented immigrants are now working as lawyers, but Mr. Reyes Savalaza can name about a dozen.
When California first began to consider admitting undocumented immigrants to the bar, a lawyer from the Obama administration submitted a brief opposing the idea, arguing that federal law is “plainly designed to preclude undocumented aliens from receiving commercial and professional licenses.” But the administration backed off its opposition when Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation explicitly allowing it.
While there has been little public outcry over the issue in California, some argue that it is yet another sign of the state’s overreach on immigration.
Mr. Eastman said undocumented lawyers are putting their clients who are here under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, at risk because the Trump administration could rescind it at any moment, leaving them even more vulnerable to deportation. In January, the president signed an executive order vastly expanding the definition of who is considered a criminal to include offenses like using fake Social Security numbers.
Young people like Ms. Mateo began publicly identifying themselves as undocumented more than a decade ago, telling their own stories to try to force change.
National attention on the plight of young people taken to the country by their parents helped pressure the Obama administration to put DACA in place, allowing the so-called “Dreamers” to live and work in the United States. That program is now in limbo under President Trump. Several Republican attorneys general have threatened to sue the federal government if the program is not rescinded by this fall.
Mr. Reyes Savalaza and Ms. Mateo are pushing for a continuation of DACA but they have other goals that are more extreme. They argue that immigrants who have served their time in prison for criminal convictions should not be targets for deportation. And they are pushing for local governments to set aside more money to pay immigrants’ legal fees.
“We know they have said that everyone is at risk, period,” Ms. Mateo said. “They want us to be scared.”
Actions that she calls necessary, however, others call reckless.
In 2013, Ms. Mateo traveled to visit her relatives in Oaxaca for several days, knowing she had no legal visa to return. She then showed up at the border with eight other undocumented students who demanded to be let into the United States and granted asylum. She was eventually granted entry and held in an Arizona detention center for several days. After some political pressure, she was allowed to pursue her case in immigration court while she began law school at Santa Clara University in California.
The protest was meant to call attention to the many people who had been deported before DACA was put in place, but many immigration activists criticized her for leading an irresponsible publicity stunt. Still, she became something of a celebrity in some immigrant rights circles.
The action jeopardized her own chance at legal status. The DACA program requires applicants to prove they have never left the United States since they entered as children. When Ms. Mateo applied for DACA last year, she was denied because of the trip to Mexico.
She plans to reapply, and has enlisted help from members of Congress, university leaders and an army of immigration advocates.
If she is denied this time, Ms. Mateo will have few other legal possibilities. Regardless of the outcome, she said, she has no plans to leave the United States.
“I keep struggling with what I planned for my life; what I still plan for my life versus what is my reality right now,” she said. While she now has her law license, because she does not have legal status no employer can hire her without the risk of sanctions. Instead, she will soon open her own law firm, because any undocumented immigrant can own a business.
For months, she has been working out of a day laborer center in Pasadena. She trains people in how to tell their stories to groups that have promised to defend immigrants against deportation, and helps them fill out forms for family members in deportation proceedings.
“Anything you can say to show that you have a life established here, that you are working and contributing, that is helpful,” she told a group of middle-age women gathered at the center one night. She added, “We need them to know that we need their help and deserve it.”
Ms. Mateo came to the United States with her family from Oaxaca as a teenager in 1998. When she began high school, she knew little English but already dreamt of becoming a lawyer.
As a student at California State University, Northridge, she began quietly meeting with other undocumented students. For months, they gathered in secret in the windowless office of a Chicano studies professor. Then they learned about a similar group in the journalism department. The groups merged and began to hold public events, calling themselves “Dreams to be Heard.” The students were among the first to press for the Dream Act, legislation in Congress that would grant a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States by their parents. The legislation failed, which led President Barack Obama to establish the DACA program administratively.
“People say they are scared, but we don’t have to be invisible anymore,” Ms. Mateo told hundreds of students when she was honored by a Northridge student group this spring. “You’re safer when you are out, when you are connected to people who will know if ICE comes for you in the middle of the night.”
Those who advocate for a stricter crackdown on illegal immigration strongly disagree.
“To say ‘I am here illegally and I don’t care about what the law says and I am just going to be here and I demand to be rewarded for it,’ that tends not to play well,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates more immigration restrictions. “If you are in the country illegally, there is no reason you should be able to practice law.”
Mr. Reyes Savalaza, 29, who was also born in Mexico, knew about Ms. Mateo long before he met her. He had seen her speak at rallies and read about her protests for years. Her brand of activism inspired him while he was studying at New York University School of Law. When he was offered to take on her case, he did not hesitate.
As a child, Mr. Reyes Savalza’s mother taught him to tell anyone who asked that he was born at O’Connor Hospital in San Jose, Calif. When he began working as a teenager he used a fake Social Security number to get a job, as a vast majority of undocumented immigrants do. That is now considered grounds for deportation.
For the past two years, Mr. Reyes Savalza has worked at Pangea Legal Services, a nonprofit in San Francisco that helps defend immigrants from deportations. These days, as Mr. Trump moves forward with his vows to increase deportations throughout the country, Mr. Reyes Savalza, who has legal status through DACA, sees his job as more difficult.
He worries about his parents, anxious that any phone call could be the one to inform him that they were picked up by immigration officers. Like his clients, they want answers he does not have.
“They want me to tell them everything will be O.K., but I can’t,” he said.
Between the two of them, Ms. Mateo and Mr. Reyes Savalza are working to help more than a dozen undocumented immigrants remain in the country. As her lawyer, Mr. Reyes Savalza plans to resubmit Ms. Mateo’s application for DACA in the coming weeks. Ms. Mateo will soon begin working on her two younger brothers’ applications for renewal.