Undocumented and Unafraid: Q&A WITH LIZBETH MATEO
by Elizabeth Kelley Gillogly BA ’93
In March 2018, when Lizbeth Mateo JD ’16 was appointed to the California Student Opportunity and Access Program Project Grant Advisory Committee (which seeks to improve access to college for low-income students in California), the news made national headlines—because Mateo was the second undocumented immigrant in the country to be appointed to a state committee, and the first one without DACA or any kind of protection against deportation. California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon appointed Mateo to the post, calling Mateo “a courageous, determined and intelligent young woman who at great personal risk has dedicated herself to fight for those seeking their rightful place in this country.”
Mateo came to Santa Clara Law in October 2018 to receive the Social Justice and Human Rights Award for 2018 at the 14th Annual Santa Clara Law Diversity Gala. We spoke with her then about why she is #UndocumentedAndUnafraid, and what gives her hope in this challenging political climate.
This is a very difficult time in our current political climate with immigration issues and child detainments, and so on. Is there anything that gives you hope right now?
There is an awareness that we haven’t had in a long time. I have been working on immigration issues for more than a decade now, and we have struggled so much over the years to try to get the general public’s attention to the issues we are facing—these issues are not new. They have always existed, maybe at a different scale, under a different administration, so they were not catching the public’s attention and outrage as much as they are now. The fact is that we have a president who is very open about his anti-immigrant stance—honestly, his hate for immigrants has made it possible for us to get that kind of attention. I think that fact that we have that gives me a little bit of hope that people are paying attention. The other things that are happening that might not be as visible at this point is that there are people who are educating themselves about these issues and how to solve them. They are joining organizations or starting organizations becoming more involved—more hands-on—with different issues, and that is what gives me hope. At the end of the day, as an undocumented person, I have no choice but to have hope.
You have a hashtag in your Twitter account #UndocumentedAndUnafraid—can you talk about what makes you unafraid?
Let me give you a little background on #UndocumentedAndUnafraid. That was a slogan that we used back in 2010 and it became very popular among undocumented youth before DACA, because we were fighting for the Dream Act. We were tired of not using our names, or having other people speaking for us, other people deciding what was best for us, and so we decided to say: No. We ARE undocumented. We are going to own that, and we are going to be unafraid, and we are going to be unapologetic about the work that we do and our struggles as undocumented people. What really made us unafraid was the fact that we had been working—I had been working for several years with our undocumented youth—and we had been able to stop deportations of undocumented youth and people with minor to no convictions, and we knew that when the community gets together and rallies behind a cause, behind a person, behind a family, things can change. Things happen that no one thinks are possible, and especially in this kind of climate, I feel that it is important more than ever to be unafraid. To say, I am undocumented—this is what I do, this is who I am, these are the things I am doing in my community to make them better. Because there are a lot of younger people who are learning that they are undocumented as well. So for me it is important. I think what makes me unafraid is the fact that I know the community will rally behind me and behind other people—which they have done in the past.
What changes do you hope to see with your work on the California Student Opportunity and Access Program Project Grant Advisory Committee (CalSOAP) committee, and how do you feel like you are making those things happen?
The CalSOAP committee is a committee that is trying to come up with innovative ideas on how to reach out to more low-income students so they can have the tools, information, and resources they need to be able to access higher education in California. One thing I hope we can accomplish is that the information and resources should also be made available to the parents. I know that in my case, at least, if I hadn’t had my mom—pushing me, encouraging me, and sitting with me when I was crying because I didn’t know how I was going to make enough money to pay for my tuition—I wouldn’t have made it. She would just sit with me and tell me: We are going to figure it out. My mom didn’t have the information on how I could access higher education being undocumented, but she had some motherly love and strength. But I think that if we equip parents, too, with the knowledge, information, and tools to help these kids, then I think the chances of these young people actually making it into college will increase.
Can you talk a little bit about what you do in your private practice?
Most of my practice is focused on immigration cases. I represent immigrant families and parents in immigration court, and also help them adjust their status if they have someone who can petition for them. I walk them through the whole process and file petitions on their behalf. We also represent immigrant and undocumented workers who get injured on the job.
Does this work feel rewarding to you?
It absolutely does. A lot of people ask me if it makes me sad or if I feel it is ironic that I can get someone their green card but I can’t get myself a green card. And it is very ironic that I am an undocumented person that represents immigrants and I am able to walk into the detention center and walk out, without any issues. I am able to walk into federal buildings and I am able to walk into court and walk out, and just the fact that I have a Bar card, that gives me so much access to things that other undocumented immigrants in my same shoes or same situation are not able to access.
It definitely is ironic, but if I am able to do something for others that I hope someday I can do for myself and my family, then this is practice. And eventually, I hope to be able to have the same opportunities that other people have. To me, this is the best life I can live.
How do you feel your law school experience at Santa Clara prepared you for what you are doing now?
I got the most out of the school that anyone could get. It was very difficult the first year, and I almost gave up. But the professors were really amazing, in particular Professor Oberman, who was my Contracts professor, she really helped me overcome these feelings of inadequacy, these feelings of not belonging, and that is why I stayed. The clinics were absolutely amazing. I am so glad I was able to actually represent clients in different types of cases and settings, including at the Ninth Circuit and appellate court. Being successful doing that was the most rewarding thing, and it made me feel like I could eventually do that even more. I was so glad that I could actually prepare myself and prepare my client’s cases to be winning cases. You can’t learn everything in law school, but what I learned has really been valuable.
Once you got past that initial fear that you weren’t going to make it, did you feel like law school was the place for you? How did you end up choosing that career to pursue?
I always wanted to be an attorney, ever since I was a kid. I don’t remember when it stared or how, but I remember telling my parents: I want to be an attorney. They never said no; we can’t afford it; you can’t do it. They were always very supportive and encouraging. But over the years, and once I moved to the U.S. when I was 14, I realized it was going to be really hard…it might actually be impossible. But the more that I knocked on doors, the more the doors kept opening for me. Santa Clara was one of those doors—probably the biggest door of my life—that just opened up for me, and it welcomed me and made me feel like I belonged and this was the place for me.
NOTE: For a longer story on Lizbeth Mateo, see https://magazine.scu.edu/magazines/fall-2018/undaunted/