How this undocumented lawyer is breaking more ground with no safety net

The World
Lizbeth Mateo at US-Mexico border

In July 2013, Lizbeth Mateo (center) joined other undocumented immigrant activists in attempting to cross the border from Mexico into the US to protest immigration policies. The group referred to themselves as the Dream 9. Mateo was detained in Arizona for 17 day, but soon after, she started law school at the University of Santa Clara in California. 

Samantha Sais/Associated Press

Lizbeth Mateo was 14 when she moved with her family from Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, to the United States. Mateo says that she only remembers being in a car when they crossed the border illegally. It was 1998, before the DREAM Act was introduced to the Senate, and before the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was introduced in 2012.

Today, Mateo is 33 years old and an attorney, running her own law practice south of Los Angeles. She is also an activist in the immigrant rights movement and among those involved in risky protests. In 2013, she left for Mexico as a way to protest and draw attention to US immigration laws. She was detained for more than two weeks after trying to re-enter the US by seeking asylum.

This month, Mateo was appointed to the California Student Opportunity and Access Program Project Grant Advisory Committee. She's among the very few undocumented residents to be named to a statewide post in California.

Mateo spoke with PRI’s The World about how her recent appointment only represents one chapter of her life.

The World: You moved to Los Angeles from rural Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. What was that transition like, especially at age 14?

Lizbeth Mateo: We moved from Santiago Matatlán, known as the capital of mezcal. My dad was a taxi driver and my mom stayed home and had a little store where she sold different products. That's how she helped make ends meet. Since I was a little kid, I told my parents that I wanted to become an attorney or a doctor, though I didn't really know any doctors or attorneys. My dad knew the reality of living in a small town though, where very few people study past the sixth grade. So he started talking about going to California to work and save money so that I could go to college. In my mind, going to California was easy, something we would do for a couple of years. I’ve lived here almost 20 years now.

At first, I cried a lot when I started high school, with almost 3,000 students, almost all of them speaking English. It was culture shock and I felt very intimidated at times, like I didn't fit in. I told my mom I wanted to return to Oaxaca, but my parents asked me to be patient.

It was in 11th grade when I realized how much being undocumented would impact my life. My counselor told me that I couldn't attend college because I didn't have legal status or a Social Security number. I looked for other ways. I took a military placement exam. Recruiters would come to our high school. But I eventually decided against that route and when I graduated, I just decided to go to Santa Monica College with my high school diploma in-hand. Luckily, I showed up at the admissions office and one of the ladies who worked there already knew about AB 8540, which passed in California in 2001 and allowed certain undocumented students to pay as if they were residents. I was able to attend community college and eventually California State University, Northridge (CSUN), and pay the same fees as my friends with legal status.

You arrived to the US in 1998 and eventually began to meet other undocumented students. How did those connections change how you saw your future in the United States?

I started thinking about organizing. It really started at Santa Monica College, when I met other undocumented students. We formed a support group, as first generation, low-income students. Then, when I transferred to CSUN, some of those same friends also transferred there and we realized there was no space there like what we had at Santa Monica. We decided to create that space, and started reaching out to professors, fellow students. That's really where I started to realize that there was a need to not just accept things in my life, but to actually try to change them. I really started organizing in 2007, traveling to Washington, DC, and lobbying. That's when we really started talking about who we were, using our names, telling our stories.

Fast forward to 2013, when you took your activism to a much bolder level. You participated in a group called the Dream 9, comprised of undocumented immigrants from Mexico but raised in the US. The group left for Mexico and then tried to re-enter the US by seeking asylum — a protest to draw attention to deportations and young undocumented people. You were detained and spent more than two weeks in a detention center in Arizona. What ran through your mind during such a risky time?

I was determined to return to California because I knew I could create change at a larger scale. And we did. We pressured President Obama to implement the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and stop the deportations of many undocumented young people. But I also remember being very sad. During that short time back in Mexico, I saw my relatives in Oaxaca and I was asking myself whether I would be able to see them again. You know, when I left Mexico back in 1998, I thought I would return in two years. That didn’t happen. Now, I was an adult and I was very aware of these realities.

Where were your parents at that moment?

They were home in California watching everything online. They were worried. But my parents, who are undocumented too, support me despite the risks that come with being very open about my status. The fact that I have their support is the most important thing to me, it’s what drives me.

Would you repeat that protest under the Trump administration?

No, and it's not so much because of Donald Trump. It's because the policies began changing under President Obama. It used to be if someone came up to the border and asked for asylum, they would be given the chance to have a credible fear interview, for agents to decide whether they in fact feared returning to their country. The interview has a low bar. You don’t have to present evidence. It's not a trial. But things have changed, and it's not so much because of the new administration. Under Obama, the bar was increased in terms of what someone needs to say or prove during the credible fear interview. It’s become more difficult. The difference now is that the Trump administration is much more vocal about those changes, something we heard less about under Obama.

You then went from detention, being allowed to fight your case from the outside, to starting law school at Santa Clara University. Another abrupt change. What were those first days of student life like?

I was detained at the border a little less than a month before I started law school. After I was released, I went home, I hugged my parents, I packed my bags and got on a plane. My first day of orientation was very interesting. Everyone knew I was the girl who got detained at the border. People approached me and essentially said, “So you’re that girl!” Not in a mean way, they were just curious about who I was. I avoided talking to many people. I felt guilty that I was able to get released, but that the women who I had met in detention stayed and there was not much I could do on my own to help them, at least not at that point.

You are now among a very small number of undocumented lawyers in the United States, something that California and few other states allow. Explain a bit more about how that is possible.  

We are very few, under a dozen, undocumented lawyers in the country, and we are definitely not fully represented in any state bar or in law schools around the country. I am lucky, though, that during my first year of law school, between 2013-14, the California Supreme Court and the California legislature both decided that undocumented people — if they passed the bar, had good moral character and met the other requirements — could take the bar and get a law license. I got sworn in at the end of June 2017.

Becoming an undocumented lawyer raised your visibility. Then, this month, you were appointed by the California Senate to a statewide education committee. Tell us about that position and also how you dealt with the aftermath of that announcement. You were attacked on social media, with some people strongly against your presence in the United States and arguing that California is giving too many rights to undocumented people.

It’s not actually a job. It’s not a paid position. It’s an advisory committee that will essentially work with California to increase the number of low-income students in colleges and universities. But we're getting inundated at the office with emails and comments on social media — some very positive and some that are not very nice, that are threatening. But we are just ignoring all of that. We had an opening celebration for our law office this month and the community came. And we know that all those negative comments will eventually go away.

I've also been an organizer for over 10 years now. I have done things that are very visible and what people consider crazy and bold. I've been very open about my status, sharing my story. For many years, we've been saying "if you share your story, people will listen" — and if ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] comes in the middle of the night and picks you up or your family, nobody is going to know. But if you're connected to a community, if you're visible, the more people will support you.

I know that, lately, some activists have been made targets by immigration agents, but I think that that is the point of the Trump administration — to instill fear in the community. But we shouldn't let fear paralyze us. We wouldn't be where we are now if we had done that years ago. So just because we have a new president it doesn't mean we're going to go back into the shadows. I think it's more important than ever to be open about who we are.

You have also been very active in pushing for the DREAM Act and DACA, yet you do not have DACA yourself. Why not?

I applied for DACA in 2015 because I felt like I met the requirements. I had gone to high school and college and could prove that I had lived here for 17 years or so, by that point. Then in May of 2016, a week after I graduated from law school, I got a letter from the government that said that they intended to deny me DACA, that they wanted me to explain why I had left the country in 2013 for 13 days when I went to Mexico during the Dream 9 protest. So we sent over 200 pages of letters of support, certificates, and an explanation as to why I should still be given DACA, given that it’s a program based on discretion. In October of 2017, I received another letter, essentially the same letter with a different date, asking me for the same proof. So I waited and waited until two days before Trump’s inauguration, and that's when I received a call essentially letting me know that they had denied me DACA.

Editor's Note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.