Undocumented immigrant Lizbeth Mateo paid in-state college tuition in California. During law school, the state Supreme Court confirmed her eligibility to practice law.
This week, Mateo, residing in California without legal authorization, got an appointment to a statewide post.
“I hope this is just the beginning of more undocumented people having access to places we’re usually not accepted into,” said Mateo, a 33-year-old attorney and immigrant rights activist.
The Senate announced that the appointment was a first for the state, but that wasn’t true. Mateo’s appointment is only one of the latest decisions in deep-blue California to expand opportunities for immigrants living in the country illegally as the Trump administration moves in the opposite direction.
Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016 named Jorge Reyes Salinas, an undocumented immigrant enrolled in the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, to the California State University board of trustees as a student trustee. Dan Reeves, chief-of-staff to Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, said Friday the appointment was historic because Mateo is not protected under DACA.
A pair of undocumented immigrants, Julian Zatarian and Francisco Medina, were appointed to lead local commissions in Huntington Park in 2014. The California Supreme Court granted a motion filed by the State Bar to allow Sergio Garcia, another undocumented immigrant, to practice law in California that same year.
Laws approved by the Legislature allow immigrants without legal status to apply for in-state college tuition and financial aid. Undocumented children can enroll in state-funded health insurance plans and adults can seek a state driver’s license, among other rights and services granted under law.
California law says that someone is incapable of holding a “civil office” if they are not a citizen at the time of their appointment.
Reeves said the Senate’s lawyers advised that Mateo’s post is not covered by that law.
“Boards and commissions that are advisory in nature,” Reeves said, “... are not considered public office, because they are not delegated with the authority to perform the sovereign functions and duties of the state, such as adopting regulations, or collecting or allocating state funds.”
He said the Senate did not ask Mateo for a Social Security card. The Senate performed a background check and confirmed that she has paid taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, Reeves said.
Travis Allen, a Republican Assemblyman and candidate for governor, said state law has gone too far in favor of undocumented immigrants at the expense of citizens.
“This is just the next step in the California Democrat’s ongoing war with the laws that govern our country,” Allen said of Mateo’s appointment. “Clearly, this is a government of the people for the people by the people. Appointing someone who is not even in our state legally undermines the very foundation of our citizen government.”
The law banning appointments of undocumented immigrants to civil posts took effect after Reyes Salinas was named to the board of trustees. New legislation introduced this year by Assemblyman Jose Media, D-Riverside, would alter the law to allow undocumented students to serve on college boards and commissions.
The California Senate Rules Committee appointed Mateo to the California Student Opportunity and Access Program Project Grant Advisory Committee one day after President Donald Trump visited the state for the first time since he took office. Trump slammed California as “totally out of control” and criticized the state’s sanctuary policies.
De León, the author of California’s “sanctuary state” law and the head of the committee that made Mateo’s appointment, is running for the U.S. Senate. He said Californians have become more accepting of Dreamers and hardworking immigrant families since voters approved Proposition 187, a 1994 initiative later overturned by the courts that restricted public services to undocumented immigrants.
He used the appointment to take a jab at the Trump administration.
“Every person who obeys our laws, pays their taxes, contributes to our economy and pledges their allegiance to the red, white and blue deserves an opportunity to become Americans,” de León said. “That being said, it’s a clear shot to a president and attorney general that continue to demonize these young men and women who in many ways are more American than they are. “
California Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, suggested the appointment could put Mateo in the cross-hairs of the federal government and “moves her name to the top of the list for deportation” in light of the hostile relationship between Democratic leaders and the Trump administration.
“Controversial appointments by design are made to gain earned media,” Anderson said. “I’m saddened this appointment is now being used for grandstanding.”
Mateo has been in the public eye as an advocate for Dreamers for several years. She made headlines in 2013 when she traveled to Mexico with other young undocumented activists and returned to the United States. She said the Obama administration later denied her application for the DACA program, which allows qualifying young people brought to the country illegally as children to temporarily reside without the fear of deportation, as a result of the trip.
Despite advances for undocumented immigrants in California, Mateo points to access to health care and other services that remain beyond reach for many. Undocumented communities continue to live in fear of deportation as the Trump administration conducts raids up and down the state.
“The appointment is a good symbolic gesture,” Mateo said. “There’s definitely a lot of hurdles left for the rest of the undocumented community. “