From volunteer to attorney, the journey was worth it!

In May, Graciela Mateo was promoted to Staff Attorney in the Religious Immigration Service section. Prior to joining CLINIC, she spent two years clerking for an immigration firm in North Carolina, focusing on deportation cases and family-based visa petitions. While attending law school in North Carolina, Mateo served as a student attorney representing clients in the Charlotte Immigration Court. Her cases primarily focused on asylum, deferred action and family-based petitions. In addition to working as a student attorney, she served as committee chair for the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Program and volunteered with the Latin American Coalition. She also took pride in serving as president of the Immigration Law Society and as a pro bono student ambassador. Becoming a practicing attorney was a life-long dream of here

What did you want you be when you were younger and how did it evolved into the path you have chosen?

When I was younger, I knew I wanted to be one of three things: (1) a chef, (2) a basketball player or (3) a lawyer. I quickly decided against being a chef because I was not a fan of washing dishes. However, I am a good cook. I also ruled out basketball player after realizing I would not grow past 5’4. Suddenly, I was left with one option, lawyer, and it felt right. I always followed the rules and made sure others abided by them too. I enjoyed debating and getting into arguments, however, I cannot say the same for those who argued against me. I was interested in solving mysteries and getting to the truth. Therefore, it seemed clear to me at nine years old that I would be a lawyer and I certainly achieved my goal. Today, I am grateful because I am practicing immigration law as I planned to do and I look forward to learning more in my new position and to helping the immigrant community.

Describe how you felt when you took your oath after passing the bar.

I was overjoyed when I took the oath after passing the bar. I honestly, could not believe it. I felt a weight fall off my shoulders and the happiness that overcame me was indescribable. I did not pass the bar exam on my first try and that was very difficult for me. I planned my entire life and knew that I would be an attorney by the age of 26, but when that didn’t happen I had to make a decision as to what I wanted to do. I took a break from studying, moved to a different state and allowed myself to live life for a couple of months before studying for the exam again.

When I restarted by studying, I was working full-time. I was nervous that I would fail again, but knew that I couldn’t give up on my dream. When I opened the letter indicating that I passed the bar exam I cried uncontrollably because, just like that, my dreams came true. The day of the oath ceremony I was a nervous wreck because I knew in a matter of minutes I was going to get to do what I always hoped I would. It will be something I will never forget. That night, I went out to eat with my boyfriend (one of my biggest supporters) and we had an amazing dinner. I celebrated with his family as well. We had cake and pizza. I haven’t celebrated with my family yet because they live in Charlotte, but I plan to celebrate with them soon.

How did your family history or community influence your decision to become an attorney?

My parents are from the Dominican Republic and they came to the United States when they were seventeen. My mother became a U.S. citizen and my father is now beginning the process to obtain his citizenship. Both of my parents remarried to other immigrants who have naturalized. My mother petitioned for my stepfather to come to the United States, but she wasn’t successful in her efforts until she obtained help from the mayor’s office in the Bronx, New York. My father, on the other hand, has had a long and complicated immigration history. He has had his run-ins with the law and that has complicated his immigration case. My family’s immigration history has inspired me to help others with their immigration matters.

What do you like most about working in religious immigration law?

What I like most about working in religious immigration law is its complexity. Some of my cases are complicated and they take various twists and turns. Trying to find a solution to these various immigration issues can be a daunting tasks, but it is also rewarding. I have learned the most from my complicated cases and I know that if faced with the same issue I can find a solution. The transition from paralegal to attorney has been exciting as well. Being able to provide legal advice and being authorized to sign forms, as an attorney has been the most exciting. Having experience in both areas has really helped me determine the kind of attorney I would like to be.

If you could give any advice to an aspiring attorney, what would you tell them to encourage them not to give up?

I would tell an aspiring attorney to remember what led them to this career. There will be long nights and days. There may be days where you feel that you will not be able to catch up, but there are good days. There are days where clients thank you for your hard work and remind you why you entered this career in the first place. My passion for immigration and helping others is what led me to this career and it gets me going every day.

On the mornings that you don’t really want to keep going, what inspired to come into work and fight the good fight?

What inspires me to come into work and fight the good fight are my clients and those in the immigrant community who need my help. The recent political climate and changes to immigration procedure have caused confusion and anger. Today, we need people who will speak for those who have no voice. We need to remind others that the United States is a melting pot with different cultures, races, ethnicities and backgrounds. We should welcome one another as brothers and sisters. Through my work, I hope to be the voice for those of the unheard and work towards bringing people together.

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A woman smiles in a courtroom.
Immigration attorney Graciela Mateo joined CLINIC in May 2018.