Undaunted

Lizbeth Mateo J.D. ’16 came to the United States when she was 14. Now she holds state office, despite being an undocumented immigrant.

Undaunted
Dreamer in blue: Lizbeth Mateo J.D. ’16, center, marches with fellow U.S. graduates in Nogales, Mexico, in June 2013. Mateo was detained for 17 days—but was released and able to begin law school at Santa Clara. / Photography by Samantha Sais/Associated Press

When Lizbeth Mateo J.D. ’16 checked her phone on the morning of March 15, 2018, she was shocked by the messages pouring in:

The previous day, the California Senate Rules Committee appointed Mateo to an advisory committee focused on expanding college access for low-income students.

That made the 34-year-old attorney only the second undocumented immigrant in the country to be named to state office. And she was the first to hold such a post without the protection of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy that offers temporary relief from deportation and a work permit to immigrants brought to the United States as children.

Spearheaded by Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León, her appointment to the California Student Opportunity and Access Program Project Grant Advisory Committee brought her expertise to a program created back in 1978 with a particular focus on helping students who are the first in their families to attend college. The timing of the appointment hardly seemed accidental; it came the day after President Donald Trump visited California to tour prototypes of the border wall.

Mateo, who has spent a decade advocating for immigrant rights, wasn’t a stranger to hate mail. But she didn’t expect the position, which was unpaid and wielded only advisory power, to attract much attention. And the level of vitriol was new. Hundreds of angry missives flooded in on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. Among them were dozens of people who claimed to have reported Mateo and her family to immigration officials. Others called her law office in Los Angeles and screamed obscenities at her staff.

Mateo was annoyed, especially when someone made a comment about her 6-month-old nephew, whose picture appeared in her social media feeds. But she wasn’t cowed. Between a series of media interviews over the next few days, she responded to some of the trolls with sassy GIFs, including of telenovela villain Soraya Montenegro archly taking a bite of food and pop singer Rihanna waving over the phrase, “Take care, Bye.”

Being silenced isn’t Mateo’s style. In an era when many undocumented people are slinking further into the shadows amid anxieties about the federal crackdown, she isn’t afraid to list “undocumented lawyer” in her Twitter bio or defend other immigrants in court. Her bold activism has already landed her behind bars and in removal proceedings twice. Even though Mateo could technically be detained or deported at any moment, stepping further into the political spotlight was an easy decision.

“In a time when everyone is telling immigrants, ‘Don’t say who you are, hide, don’t get on a plane’… I don’t want to accept ‘No’ as an answer, and I don’t want to live in fear,” she says.

“Stay strong.”

Mateo has always dreamed big. Growing up in a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico, she insisted she would become a lawyer even though girls weren’t expected to make it past sixth grade. Her father drove a taxi, and her mother ran a makeshift grocery store out of their home. Her parents knew they couldn’t afford to send their daughter to law school if they stayed in the country, so they decided to join relatives in the United States. When Mateo was 14, she traveled with her parents, two younger siblings, and a handful of other family members to Tijuana, Mexico. At the crack of dawn, she alone joined a group walking across the border to California, following a coyote they had hired. She ran and hid as the coyote commanded, and she spent a cold night sleeping in the middle of nowhere, without food or water. The next day, a car took her to San Diego and eventually to Los Angeles, where she was reunited with her family.

When Mateo started high school, her parents warned her not to tell anyone she was undocumented. She didn’t know exactly what that meant, but she assumed it was a temporary status that would change by the time she graduated. Mateo spent the first couple of days crying, lost on a crowded campus and, with a tenuous grasp of English, unable to understand anyone. A teaching assistant from Uruguay pulled her aside and gave her some perspective: “Your parents sacrificed so much to bring you here. You need to stay strong and do well in school.” Mateo buckled down on academics and improved her English by listening to music and helping out at her aunt’s flower shop.

As she got older, Mateo realized that being undocumented would affect her life in significant ways: She couldn’t get a driver’s license. She couldn’t get a job. She couldn’t open a bank account or get a cell phone. Eventually, she found ways around these obstacles by finding employers that didn’t ask for a Social Security number, tracking down a bank that gave her an account with a student ID, and asking her uncle, a U.S. citizen, to open a phone plan. (She didn’t get a driver’s license until 2013, when California legislators passed a bill allowing undocumented people to apply for one.) As far as affording higher education, Mateo’s timing was fortunate: When she was a senior in high school, state lawmakers passed a bill allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.

“I didn’t know any undocumented attorneys. To me, it’s important to be open, because I want people to know it’s possible.”

During her first year at Santa Monica College, a classmate approached Mateo and asked her to sign a letter urging President George W. Bush to support the DREAM Act. Mateo had no idea what that was. Her classmate explained that the bill would give high school graduates brought to the States illegally as children a path to citizenship.

Mateo signed, then asked for an extra letter and got 500 copies made. Without revealing that it would benefit her, she spent breaks during her job as a restaurant server on Venice Beach asking passersby to sign them. A week later, she brought all 500 signed letters to the Association of Latin American Students, a campus group. Mateo wasn’t publicizing her own status, but she had officially begun speaking up as an activist.

In 2005, Mateo transferred to California State University, Northridge, where she majored in Chicana/o studies. She co-founded Dreams To Be Heard, a support and advocacy group for undocumented students that elected representatives to student government and lobbied for expanded financial aid and the DREAM Act. Slowly, Mateo began revealing her immigration status in press conferences, initially using just her first name, then stepping out of the shadows completely.

In 2010, while working at a restaurant and volunteering as an organizer, Mateo donned her graduation cap and gown, and joined four other immigrants, including two who were undocumented, staging a sit-in at U.S. Senator John McCain’s office in Tucson, Arizona, to pressure him to support the DREAM Act. Mateo was arrested for misdemeanor trespassing and spent a night in jail before being transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. She and the other protestors had hoped to end up at a detention center, where they could organize other young people, but instead they were released. A few months later, the government dropped removal proceedings against her.

“That was the first time I really understood what privilege means,” she said. “It’s not just something you’re born with—it’s something you can earn.”

The Dream 9

In 2013, Mateo was living in Washington, D.C., working as research and policy coordinator for a group advocating for the rights of restaurant workers while volunteering as an organizer with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance. After President Obama announced DACA policy in June 2012, the group received an influx of messages from young people who would have been eligible for the policy but had been forced to leave the country. Officially, they didn’t qualify. “It was heartbreaking, and we started talking about: ‘How can we bring them back?’” Mateo says. “We wanted to start a conversation around the millions of people who had already been deported.”

In July 2013, Mateo and two other undocumented activists traveled back to Mexico. Together with six others, who had also been brought to the United States as children but returned to Mexico earlier, the so-called “Dream 9” tried to cross the border at Nogales, Arizona, seeking humanitarian parole. The activists, some wearing graduation gowns, were arrested and eventually taken to the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona. Mateo and others went on a hunger strike for five days to protest their lack of access to phones, and she spent time in solitary confinement. A little over two weeks later, all were released. The protest garnered criticism even from some immigration advocates, who denounced it as a publicity stunt.

Lizbeth Mateo Photo
Counsel without a safety net: As a law student volunteering at the Katharine & George Alexander Community Law Center, Lizbeth Mateo helped a client recover some $10,000 in unpaid wages./Austin Hargrave

But Mateo felt the action was a success: They had shone a spotlight on a critical issue and reunited six young people who had grown up in the United States with their families; since then, none has been deported, and one has been granted asylum. A judge administratively closed Mateo’s own immigration case a year later.

“The experience left me feeling guilty: I had done something that people thought was crazy and was allowed to stay here,” she said. “But the other women detained at Eloy couldn’t do the same thing.”

Barred

Just six days after her release, Mateo started law school at Santa Clara University. Culture shock hit her, as classmates stopped to ask, “Wait, are you that girl?” She struggled with guilt about not being able to actively help less privileged immigrants and a sense of not belonging in the competitive environment. Mateo thought about leaving, but a pep talk from her contracts professor, Michelle Oberman, reminded her of why she was there: This was her dream, and she could use it to help others.

“Mateo is the single most collaborative yet inspirational student I’ve ever taught,” Oberman recalls. “It’s like she leads from within, not in front or behind—there’s a sense of moral centeredness.”

Mateo spent summers clerking at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, where she helped survivors of domestic violence with their immigration cases, and California Rural Legal Assistance, where she supported impact litigation efforts. During her 3L year, she represented clients in workers’ rights cases at the Katharine & George Alexander Community Law Center, where she remains a volunteer. These experiences cemented a desire to work in direct service.

After Mateo graduated, she fell ill with thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition in which pinched nerves caused excruciating pain. After four months recuperating, she took the bar and then started working for Pasadenans Organizing for Progress, a local social justice organization. When she passed the exam in May 2017, she asked de León, the senator who would eventually appoint her to the state advisory committee, to swear her in.

Without DACA protection Mateo decided to focus on the privilege she did have: using her law degree.

But in January 2018, two days before President Trump was inaugurated, Mateo got some bad news. Despite support from law school professors and congressional representatives, her DACA application had been denied for the second time. Her decision to leave the country in 2013 had helped others, but it had extracted a personal cost. Now, no legal organization could hire her, and she was technically at risk of being deported.

“I cried so much. I didn’t know how to explain to my parents that everything I had done would affect me,” she said. “But I never felt like I made a mistake. It was the right thing to do.”

Mateo decided to focus on the privilege she did have: using her law degree. In 2014, California became the first of three states to allow undocumented people to practice law. That meant Mateo would be one of the first few undocumented attorneys in the country. In February 2018, she opened a private practice that focuses on workers’ compensation and immigration cases. Eventually, she hopes to represent clients in federal court and undertake impact litigation. Mateo says she doesn’t know any other undocumented lawyers without DACA who are open about their status. “When I was in college, I didn’t know any undocumented attorneys,” she said. “To me, it’s important to be open because I want people to know it’s possible.”

By serving on the California Student Opportunity and Access Program Project Grant Advisory Committee, a role without term limits, Mateo hopes to draw on her own experience to devise creative ways of maximizing resources for the estimated 72,300 undocumented students who attend California’s public colleges and universities.

Mateo trusts that her status as an attorney and political appointee provides protection against arrest and deportation. But with no clear path to legal residency or citizenship, she continues to live with a giant question mark over her head. When she visits clients at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, she can see Mexico just over the border, and she thinks of the relatives she may never see again. “It’s close, and yet so far, so very far for me,” she says.

But she doesn’t dwell on her uncertain future. As always, there are short-term goals: college, law school, the bar, her next case. She remains faithful to the belief that attracted her parents to the United States in the first place: “If you work hard and show people that you want to excel, your work is going to be rewarded. You can build the future and life you want.”


KATIA SAVCHUK is a journalist whose work has appeared in Forbes, Cosmopolitan, the Washington Post, and elsewhere.

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