Things That Matter

She’s An Undocumented Migrant Herself But Is Fighting For People Like Her In The Court System

Lizbeth Mateo always had a strong sense of justice since she was a small child. It was this determination that would lead her to become an immigration lawyer and a controversial appointment to a post on a state advisory committee, despite being undocumented. 

The Los Angeles lawyer is a DREAMER. She came to the U.S. from Oaxaca with her parents at 14 years old. Now, 20 years later, Mateo protects immigrants in court every day and each time she does she faces possible arrest and deportation. The Los Angeles Times profiled Mateo as she fights for herself by fighting for others. 

“I’m a walking contradiction,” Mateo told the newspaper.

Officials received death threats when Mateo was appointed to a state advisory board.

When the Senate Rules Committee appointed Mateo to the California Student Opportunity and Access Program Project Grant Advisory Committee, her legal status made headlines. 

“While Donald Trump fixates on walls, California will continue to concentrate on opportunities,” Kevin de León, state Senate president pro tem, said in 2018. “Ms. Mateo is 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.”

De Leon took a lot of flack, including death threats, for appointing an undocumented immigrant. But who better to help underserved students than one herself. 

“There were some really angry people who said really nasty things,” said Mateo. “They said ICE is coming, they’re going to report me and they hope Trump sends the Army.”

Mateo is a local hero to immigrants who credit her courage for making real change. 

“Any of us with DACA owe Lizbeth and the movement,” said Mateo’s attorney Luis Angel Reyes Savalza who is also undocumented.

Mateo is still on her journey to citizenship. She believes that for people like her, people who have come here without papers but contribute so deeply to society will have a chance at naturalization — at least someday. 

“I wouldn’t say I worry about her. I’d say I’m very much inspired by her, and she’s inspired many others in her outspokenness and her activism,” Reyes Savalza said. “I do think she’s taking a very calculated risk, and I think it speaks to the kind of person she is that she puts community first.”

Even if Mateo is unsurprised by the Trump’s administration anti-immigration policies and disappointed in Democrats who have done little to stop him, she still believes her chances in the United States were better than in Oaxaca. 

“It provides opportunities. So much so that someone like me, who came from a tiny town in Oaxaca — with parents who only finished sixth grade, nothing more — could make it and become an attorney,” she said. 

Mateo’s journey from a struggling ESL student to a revered lawyer was not easy. 

Mateo attended Venice High but it was no walk in the park, the once superstar student wasn’t able to shine her brightest as she struggled to learn English.  

“I couldn’t stand being in school, didn’t understand things and felt isolated and very stupid. In Mexico, I was outgoing and always raising my hand and answering questions,” Mateo said. “I remember one day I came home crying and told my mom I wanted to go back to Oaxaca and live with my grandmother. She said OK, we’ll send you back if that’s what you want. But you have to wait because we don’t have any money.”

Mateo didn’t give up. She graduated from Venice High then attended Santa Monica College and Cal State Northridge. Although her options for grad school and job prospects would be limited due to her immigration status, she continued to fight for her place in the United States. 

In 2014, she and nine other DREAMERs were arrested after traveling south of the border then returning to protest deportations under the Obama administration and lobby for the DREAM act. The move, going back to Mexico, disqualified her from receiving DACA protections. Mateo was still able to attend Santa Clara University for law school soon after. 

“There was a level of determination that is very rare and inspirational and … what was amazing was that she led others,” said one of her professors, Michelle Oberman. “She’s a hero of mine and in this day of big egos she’s quite centered. … It’s all in the service of others and it’s not about her. That’s what’s most singularly impressive.”

Mateo received her law degree, passed the bar, and made defending immigrants her life’s mission. And the rest is history in the making. 

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