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Law360 (February 26, 2021, 8:36 PM EST) — Before immigration attorney Lizbeth Mateo accompanied her client, Edith Espinal, into U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s office in Westerville, Ohio, on Feb. 18, she made a routine call to her assistant back in California.

Like her client, Mateo lacks legal documents to reside in the U.S., and she knew that either of them could be detained upon arrival — a possibility that could affect her work on other cases. Espinal was scared preparing for the encounter, she told Law360 through an interpreter, but had faith in her attorney.

Their concerns were outweighed, however, by the hope that ICE would stay the deportation order against Espinal, a wife and mother of three who had spent 40 months confined in sanctuary at the Columbus Mennonite Church.

Encouraged by some assurances the agency had offered her client, Mateo viewed her own potential arrest as a cost of doing business.

“I just don’t have time for that,” Mateo said in a phone call with Law360, safely back in her Los Angeles office. “I cannot afford to be detained for too long. I have other clients that rely on me working on their cases, and so I have responsibilities that go beyond just, ‘Is it going to be uncomfortable or scary for me to be detained?'”

Detention and removal are threats that have followed Mateo, 36, for over half her life, since her family relocated from Mexico to the U.S. when she was 14.

Denied relief through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Mateo’s immigration status has presented challenges at every stage of her legal career, from joining the bar, to landing a job, to finding a billing services provider after she established her own practice. Two national accounting services companies have refused to work with her, she says, over concerns about collecting payment if she gets deported.

But those hurdles have not quelled her activism or her advocacy. Mateo and Espinal, whose relationship is featured in “The Undocumented Lawyer,” a documentary scheduled to air Monday on HBO Latino, are bound by their commitment to fighting for themselves and others like them.

“Lizbeth and Edith, both, are bold in making those demands and, essentially, not cooperating or collaborating in their own oppression,” David Bennion, executive director of the Free Migration Project, who advised Mateo on Espinal’s case, told Law360.

Bennion, who also works with the National Sanctuary Collective, a support network backing individuals residing in religious centers, praised the pair’s capacity to affect change for themselves.

“The churches are, physically, this strange sort of liminal space where people have been able to kind of step outside of the immigration system,” Bennion said. “In some ways, they’re very visible there. In other ways, they kind of disappear in that it seems that neither the politicians on the left nor on the right really want to even talk about their cases.”

Both Espinal, one of the collective’s public-facing Sanctuary Leaders, and Mateo were ready to stand up without backing from lawmakers.

In 2010, Mateo was detained and briefly put in removal proceedings after she participated in a sit-in at then-Arizona Sen. John McCain’s office.

She was part of a group of activists urging the Senate to take up the Dream Act, a bill to provide a pathway to citizenship to immigrants in the country illegally who arrived in the U.S. as minors. The measure was reintroduced this year as part of the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021.

She and Espinal became aware of each other three years later, when both worked on Bring Them Home, another civil disobedience campaign, in which young people who had been denied immigration relief and had self-deported tried to reenter the U.S.

Mateo took up Espinal’s asylum case in 2017, shortly after she joined the bar, after the Sixth Circuit had dismissed Espinal’s last appeal. By then, her case had been picked up and subsequently dropped by four or five lawyers, according to Mateo.

The appeals court declined to review her case, finding that her asylum application left out important aspects of her claim, including an assault she experienced in Mexico.

With deportation looming, a friend spoke to the church on her behalf in October 2017. The congregation held two meetings, according to Pastor Joel Miller, and within a matter of days she had moved in.

While ICE is not legally prohibited from entering houses of worship, the agency does not generally carry out arrests at religious sites. But they tried other tactics to get Espinal to come out of the church and report for removal, including tagging her with a $500,000 civil fine and threatening her with criminal prosecution.

The women’s relationship was delicate at first. Mateo was very conscious of her lack of experience — Espinal was only her second client — and the prospect of letting her client down.

“I couldn’t sleep for days when I read the transcripts of her asylum case,” Mateo said. After multiple drafts, her initial declaration came to 11 pages, which she described as a “very, very detailed declaration of things that she had mentioned to other attorneys, but other attorneys just didn’t think it was important.”

Knowing that her attorney was also unauthorized to be in the U.S. helped build trust between them, Espinal said.

In January 2020, while she was still working on Espinal’s case, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security put removal proceedings against Mateo back on its calendar. She says the hearing notice arrived shortly after the Los Angeles Times ran a profile of her.

Surprisingly, being back on the government’s radar has made some parts of Mateo’s work representing others facing deportation easier.

“Now that I’m in removal proceedings, I feel like I am a little more protected,” she said. “I can go to a detention center that’s close to the border, and if I’m asked for my immigration status or a passport or visa or whatever, I can just give them a copy of my hearing notice, which I’ve done.”

Nevertheless, she made her standard calls last week before heading into ICE’s office with Espinal, Miller and Ohio political activist Morgan Harper, ensuring that her assistant knew which colleagues could pick up her clients’ cases and who to contact for key documents in her own case.

Mateo and Espinal were not detained when they arrived. Instead, they were greeted with a startling level of enthusiasm.

The local ICE officials they met with referenced new directives the agency has received under the Biden administration and treated the sit-down almost like a reunion, according to Miller.

In January, shortly after President Joe Biden was inaugurated, the agency rejected requests to stay removal for Espinal and another Ohio sanctuary recipient.

“What was really bizarre about the meeting was after three and a half years of wanting to deport Edith, and every time we would have a meeting, them really giving us nothing, they were strangely kind and courteous,” the pastor said.

ICE did not respond to a request for comment on the meeting.

The agency offered Espinal an order of supervision, meaning she would continue to check in with ICE weekly through an app and in-person every six months, but would cease to be a priority for deportation.

Mateo pushed back, seeking a stay of removal for her client, but they eventually accepted the offer. It meant Espinal could go home.

The group emerged to cheers and happy tears from dozens of supporters who had gathered outside to support Espinal. Then they went out for a meal.

Eight days after the meeting, Espinal was back at the church for a visit, preparing tacos for her monthly food fundraiser, an initiative to help her family cover expenses while she was in sanctuary.

Her case is not over, she said. She has a pre-approved visa, and Mateo is also looking into other possibilities for long-term relief.

Mateo’s case is still pending, with her next hearing scheduled for the fall. She says she doesn’t like to think about it, preferring to focus on her clients.

“I am the worst client to have,” Mateo said. “My attorney — I do have an attorney because I don’t think I will be a very good advocate for myself — she’s always trying to push me to pay attention to my case.” 

While she waits, Mateo views her situation as part of a whole, knowing that her clients’ cases may shape the precedent that one day determines her path.

“Even though this is not the reason why I do it, I know that whatever I can accomplish in some of my client’s cases will directly affect me in the future,” Mateo said. “With Edith’s case, for instance, this is something that could potentially benefit me as well, because I’ve always said I could be in her shoes eventually.”

–Editing by Orlando Lorenzo and Emily Kokoll.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.


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