Column: This immigration attorney understands her clients. She’s undocumented, too

On Friday morning, attorney Lizbeth Mateo went to immigration court in downtown Los Angeles to represent a client with whom she has something in common.

She’s undocumented, too.

Mateo wore a navy blue suit, carried a binder stuffed with court records and announced herself to the immigration judge conducting a hearing. She has no more protection from arrest and deportation than any of her clients, but that’s not something she thinks about on the job.

Mateo explained to the judge that her client — a middle-aged man who has lived in the U.S. for three decades — has a daughter who is becoming a naturalized citizen and has agreed to sponsor her father. The man also has a long-pending asylum case. The judge, whose calendar is jammed, set a court date for next January. The case backlog in California was 178,000 as of last November, with more than 1 million cases stacked up nationally.

Mateo says her own status does not come up in court, and she’s never sure whether judges or other lawyers know that the polished, savvy 34-year-old woman advocating on behalf of her clients does not have legal status herself.

“I’m a walking contradiction,” Mateo had told me a day earlier in her Wilmington law office.

I’d heard about Mateo and decided this would be a good time to pay a visit. With Donald Trump in the White House and an election year upon us, immigration is going to remain at the center of national political debate in 2020. And California will continue to be derided by critics as a carnival of soft-headed, pro-immigration liberals run amok.

A place where someone who’s undocumented can be a lawyer, thanks in part to a state Supreme Court ruling in 2014.

And even serve on a state commission.

“While Donald Trump fixates on walls, California will continue to concentrate on opportunities,” Kevin de León said in March of 2018 when, as Senate president pro tem, he appointed Mateo to an unpaid post on a state advisory committee studying ways to help underserved students go to college.

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