Kenya: Lawyer With Kenyan Roots in Battle for U.S. Congress Seat

In a year when the arrival of spring has been unpredictable and erratic in the US because of the moody winter weather that has refused to go away, it's a surprisingly warm and beautiful morning in the Raleigh suburb of North Carolina as the Nation team arrives at the home of Mr Jeff Matemu. The Kenyan-born attorney has attracted interest after announcing his candidacy for the US House of Representatives, Congressional District 2, North Carolina.

As Mr Matemu, 44, shows the Nation around his massive three-storey home, which he says he personally designed and oversaw its construction, one room seems to hold a special place in his heart.

"Welcome to Jeff Matemu recording studio," he says cheerfully. "This is my hideout. When I'm in North Carolina and not at either my New York or (Washington) DC offices, this is where I spend most evenings playing my guitar. Playing the guitar is the side of me and my passion that not many people know about."

As he picks up one guitar and expertly "finger-picks" renditions of Lingala songs from the early 1990s, it is clear that he is a talented player.


Mr Matemu has made a name as a leading immigration lawyer in the US and has helped countless illegal immigrants struggling either to regularise their status or ward-off deportation orders, more so following US President Donald Trump's tough stance.

He has become a celebrity of sorts in US legal circles because of his intimate understanding of immigration law, especially after he took a leading role in a high-level Federal case at the US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit (No. 17-1519, Jose Guzman Gonzalez v. Jefferson Sessions III).

"Oh ... that case! Yeah, I've sued Attorney-General Jeff Sessions about something that has been going for a long time with far-reaching implications on immigrants and we are now waiting for the judgment," Mr Matemu says.

But this is no small matter: it is a big constitutional case that has captured the imagination of immigrants since it could determine whether a PJC (Prayer for Judgment Continued) -- where no probation, fine, penalty or jail sentence is ordered by a judge -- amounts to a conviction under immigration law, and whether a PJC would support a deportation order and ineligibility for certain forms of relief from deportation or removal from the US.


"My position is that a PJC is an adjudication of guilt by the court without an entry of judgment. Therefore, a PJC is technically not a conviction because no final judgment has been entered. In the traditional sense, a conviction is an adjudication of guilt accompanied by an entry of judgment," he says.

Mr Matemu explains that a crucial issue in this case is whether the imposition of costs and surcharges following a plea in a criminal proceeding constitutes a "penalty" or "punishment" such that an alien has suffered a "conviction" within the meaning of section 101(a)(48)(A) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

"If the 4th Circuit agrees with me, PJCs by themselves will no longer be considered punishments and therefore will no longer support deportation orders in multiple states where PJCs and some variations of such devices are in use," he says.

Important as this landmark legal matter sounds, it is not why Mr Matemu is making headlines -- or why the Nation sought him in North Carolina. What many Kenyans in the US talk about is Mr Matemu's recent announcement that he has been nominated by his Libertarian Party to run for the US Congress. For the more hopeful, this brings back memories of Barack Obama, another American politician with Kenyan roots who started as a junior Senator before becoming a two-term President from 2008 to January last year.


Mr Matemu, a Nairobi School and University of Nairobi alumnus, says he chose to run as a Libertarian to better serve the people of his congressional district by avoiding party labels that he says have controlled politicians' decisions.

"As you already know by now, Congress is hopelessly broken because of party affiliations between Democrats and Republicans. Nothing is being done under these circumstances and I want to go there to serve the people of North Carolina. I can only do that on a Libertarian Party ticket," he says.

The US Federal government's Congress is a bicameral legislature made up of the Senate and House of Representatives.

The politician was born in Mombasa and spent part of his childhood in the Kenyan coastal town. His father, Dr Isaac Matemu Kithyo, is an academic at South Eastern Kenya University while his mother, Mrs Theresa Matemu, is the former principal of Muthingini Secondary School in Makueni.

Growing up, he attended several primary schools in Mombasa, Machakos and Nairobi. He sat his KCPE examination at City Primary School. He attended Nairobi School between 1988 and 1991 then joined the University of Nairobi Law School from 1992 to 1997.


"After graduation from the University of Nairobi, I practised law in Kenya for a few years until I left to pursue my post-graduate studies in the US in 2003," he says.

In the US, Mr Matemu went to several American schools including John Marshall Law School in Chicago, American University in Washington DC and the University of North Carolina Law School.

"In the process, I worked for various law firms in New York City and Richmond, Virginia. I also worked for American Express in Phoenix, Arizona," he says.

Once he fulfilled his conditions for enrolment, he took the bar exams and got admitted as an attorney. He now runs his own law firm with an office in New York City and in Raleigh, North Carolina.

"I'm married with children but they would like to remain out of the hustle and grind of American politics for their own privacy and safety. I visit Kenya several times every year," says Mr Matemu, who has two siblings, Ms Betty Nzau who lives in the US, and Steven Matemu of Nairobi.


Mr Matemu says that if elected to Congress, he will fight for revitalisation of infrastructure -- including roads, bridges and waterways. He also plans to fight for affordable college education and expansion of the earned income tax credit which subsidises wages for low income earners, and for reforms in the criminal justice system.

"As a Libertarian, I support the rights of all the people all the time. Immigrants must be protected from unfair and discriminatory laws," he says.

Like many other immigrants who have run for political office in the US before him, Mr Matemu traces his successes to coming to America, a country that still holds plenty of possibilities for those who dare to dream.

"I arrived in the US by myself, worked hard, went to great American schools, married, raised a family, became a successful professional, opened my own successful federal legal practice, bought a home in a great neighbourhood and provided decent living for my family," Mr Matemu says.


He adds: "This great country kept its promise to me. The promise that if you come here legally, work hard, and play by the rules, you will surely be rewarded."

Mr Matemu says that he has, however, been disappointed in the last few years by the rapid degradation of America's democratic institutions and the inability of Congress to get anything done and he believes it is time that changed.

"I am running to give the people a choice so that they do not feel like they can only choose between a Democrat and a Republican. I have practical common-sense solutions for issues that truly matter to them and not those issues that have been imposed on them by political elites," he says.

Even though the elections are in November and the other parties are yet to nominate their candidates, Mr Matemu has hit the ground running and has scheduled the first major rally and fundraising meeting.


"Our first major rally, which will double up as a fundraising meeting, will be held on April 29 at Brentwood Park 3315 Vinson Ct, Raleigh, NC 27604. At this meeting, I'll outline my agenda to my supporters and I want to send out an invitation to everyone, especially Kenyans in North Carolina to come. We will have food, drinks, dance and many other activities," he says.

Currently, he has $150,000 (Sh15m) donated by the party. "I'll use that only for party approved activities like TV adverts so I'll need about $250,000 more. Separate from that, I have now raised $7,425 through my website and $650 on GoFundMe (an online fundraising platform)," he says.

He is banking on his supporters to help him raise enough money.

"If every Kenyan in the US gives just $25, I'll have more money than Democrat and Republican candidates combined and I'll win the race. That's why I'm asking them to go to my website or GoFundMe," he says.


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Publish date : 2018-04-08 14:10:03
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