A Defender of the Constitution, With No Legal Right to Live Here

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.

Photo

Ms. Mateo, with her parents Joel Mateo and Maria Jimenez, at her swearing-in ceremony last month in California. Kevin de León, left, the leader of the California State Senate, presided.

Credit
Emily Berl for The New York Times

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