Robert Scheer and Lizbeth Mateo Explore the Contradictions of U.S. Immigration Policy
In this week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” the Truthdig editor in chief speaks with lawyer and immigrant-rights activist Lizbeth Mateo, who self-deported in order to illuminate the plight of immigrants like herself.
Mateo came to the United States with her family at age 14 and attended college and law school. She returned to Mexico for several days in 2013 and was subsequently denied DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), calling into question her ability to live and work in the United States.
In their conversation, Mateo tells Scheer why she decided to become an activist and self-deport, knowing it was a risky move. She explains why activists call President Obama the “Deporter-in-Chief,” and affirms that whatever happens in the presidential election, immigrants will not forget the politicians who remained silent while Donald Trump insulted them.
A rushed transcript follows.
—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly
Robert Scheer: Hi. This is Robert Scheer. Welcome to another addition of Scheer Intelligence where the intelligence comes from my guests and in this case it is LIzbeth Mateo, a immigrant activist, who has had a rich history ever since she came into this country, dealing with immigration laws. She came in at the age of fourteen from Oaxaca, she went to local schools, graduated from Venice High School and actually, spent two years at Santa Monica College, where we are broadcasting from. Very proud alumni. Went on, then to Cal State-Northridge and another great local institution and then went up to Santa Clara College, a Jesuit institution in Silicon Valley and graduated from law school.
All of which would now put her in position for a great career except there is a question about her documentation, which is actually the subject of this podcast. Everybody is now talking about immigration reform or getting rid of immigrants or what have you and there is a lot of hypocrisy around this issue but one of the bright spots, although maybe Elizabeth will disagree with me, is that at least here in the state of California, which has been ahead of the country, I think, on immigration reform as far as licenses. In one bill, Jerry Brown, our Governor, signed, you can actually get credentialed as a lawyer and function.
Why don’t we begin with that? On the one hand, you represent the great achievement of the American melting pot. A person who did everything right and yet you could have been eligible for the Dream Act that Obama has proclaimed or seems to support. There is a bit of a mixed record there from Obama on this, which you can discuss, but you have a problem in your record in that you were an activist and one of your activist actions was to self-deport, so why don’t we talk about that.
Lizbeth Mateo: Yes, first of all, thank you so much for inviting me, for having me here. I am essentially what a lot of people call a dreamer. I came to the US at a very young age. I went to high school, college in the area, I graduated from law school and yes, California has been, I think, at the forefront of immigrant-rights issues for a long time. We are able to get in-state tuition, pay like everyone else who is a citizen. Also get certain financial aid and more recently, at least for me, the most crucial thing in my career is that I can actually get a license. I can take the Bar, get a license, and practice law.
The issue is, now, I can’t work legally in the US. I don’t have a work permit because I do qualify, in my opinion, for deferred action for childhood arrivals or DACA as most people know it, which is a program that President Obama created in 2012.
However, as part of my activism, I left the country in 2013, briefly, with two other young people and we joined a campaign called the Bring Them Home Campaign. We essentially met with other young people in Mexico who had been deported, who had left for family reasons, for other emergencies, who wanted to come home. We came back , the nine of us, we were named the Dream Nine and we presented ourselves at the border and asked the government to allow us to come home, which they did after seventeen days in detention and so, I went on to law school, thinking I am going to remain in this country, I have been allowed to come home and I am going to apply for DACA eventually, which I did, only to receive not one but two notices of intent to deny from the government citing that exit. That is what I am dealing with right now and that is what I am fighting for.
Scheer: So this is a situation that a lot of people fall into. That something has gone array in their papers either because they were really great citizens, like you, activists to try to make the country better or they had some technical difficulty.
Speaking as a lawyer, what can be done now, not just in your case, where do we stand on the immigration issue? I know the Democrats are saying they are great on it and they are getting a lot of votes based on that. They weren’t always great and the Republicans are being led by an out and out neo-fascist, Donald Trump, who wants to just blame, when he is not blaming Muslims, he wants to blame immigrants, undocumented immigrants, for all of our problems. Of course, they have nothing to do with it. We are in a weird place where the good people haven’t always been so good.
Mateo: Yes, and that is a problem. Especially during this election that has been very negative, where immigrants have been described with some of the most horrible words but I think, at least for me, not so much from the stand point of a law graduate or a future lawyer, but more from the stand point of an immigrant and an organizer, I think that we need to be ready regardless of who becomes President. Even if it is Hilary Clinton. She is saying some great things about immigrants now but she hasn’t always been on our side. She was the first one to call for the deportation of minors, refugee children from Central America. She has agreed with the policies of President Obama to deport almost three million people at this point, 2.5 million people, including many of those refugee children, many of who are still in jails across the country at this point.
To me, that is just unacceptable that in this country we put kids in jails, in prisons. I think whoever becomes President, we have to be ready to keep organizing like we have so far and that is part of the reason why I am speaking out on my case and why the government wants to deny me a benefit that, one, I qualify for and two, that I think I have worked very hard for and have, in many ways, earned through my activism, through my work in my personal life and that is the kind of message that I am trying to send to the community at this point.
Scheer: You know, living here in Los Angeles and running into a lot of people, students of my own at USC and elsewhere who have questionable status, they are a little angry with Obama and some of them, my students, have called him the Deporter in Chief.
Mateo: He is the president who has deported more undocumented immigrants in the history of this country and that is …
Scheer: More than any other president.Mateo: Yes, more than any other President. That is in great contrast with what he campaign around in 2008. A lot of young people, a lot of dreamers, wen tout and supported his campaign, knock on doors, encourage people to vote for him so we felt, in many ways, betrayed by the promises that he was making and felt like DACA, while it was great, it wasn’t enough because we were still seeing our parents, our neighbors, our friends getting deported. That is the reason we did this campaign, the Bring Them Home Campaign, to try to reunite some of these young people who had been deported and also work with families to come back home because it was very frustrating to hear people who were in Mexico or other countries saying, “I want to come home. I have kids in the US, my parents are in the US, I am a dreamer, I grew up there since I was two and I hardly speak Spanish and I don’t know what I am doing here. I was deported. I want to come home”, and that is the reason we did it. We wanted to show the Obama Administration that they can do more. That DACA was great but it is not enough. There is more that we can do and that was the main reason.
Scheer: You knew at the time that you were risking your status or?
Mateo: Yes, I had been in the country, living in the US, for about fifteen years at that point, so I knew that it was going to be risky. I knew that there was a chance that I wasn’t going to be able to come back but I was also very inspired and hopeful that my community was going to rally around their cause and what we were trying to do and basically, organize to get us back home. At that point, we had been able to stop a lot of deportations with the help of the community by organizing and we were inspired by that and we wanted to take that to a different level and show our community, more than anything, that when they organize, that when they work together, they can do lots of things that they didn’t think they could.
Scheer: I must say, this is a big part of the California story and that has not been recognized nationally enough. The reason California, and one of the consequences that has changed, is that it is a deep blue state and Republicans, now, are in danger of being a third-party with undecided about to be a larger group then Republicans. What happened is the Republicans backed proposition 187, which was a Draconian proposition, it wasn’t the first one but it was the nastiest one, and it passed and then it was thrown out by the courts but it gave the Democrats an opportunity to show a different way and they did.
The Democratic Party in California broke, was actually the National Democratic Party, broke with this tradition because Democrats, because of narrow-minded labor movement of old, including the farm workers at one point, thought that immigration was threatening, immigrants were threatening to their effort. That changed and in California, as you mentioned the rights that undocumented people have in California, the Democratic Party decided very clearly, to establish a commitment to the human rights of undocumented people.
I remember looking out of my window, I lived downtown, in Los Angeles and you reminded me, oh it was ’06. I looked out of my window, I had no advance notice, I don’t know, I read the papers, I follow the news and I suddenly saw the largest demonstration I have ever seen in Los Angeles going right under my window and I go, “What is this thing about?”, and they were all streaming towards City Hall, down 1st Street and everything, so I went running out to find out what it was about and it was a demonstration for saner immigration rights but what it represented was a unification of not only the immigrant community, Latino community, but also an ending of this, “Oh, I’m a citizen, I don’t care about you” or “I have this status”. It ended a certain kind of individualism and development of a sense of community that I think was quite startling. Was that the pivotal moment?
Mateo: I think that it was one of the pivotal moments. I think that 2006 demonstrated to the community that it is possible to work together. That it is possible to unify and to work towards what we want which is to be treated with dignity and respect but I think that after that point, there were several others and I think in 2010, there were some major demonstrations, not at the level with hundreds of thousands of people but 2010 was a year that I think, at least undocumented youth calling undocumented, aren’t afraid to mean, we are not going to be afraid to say we are undocumented, we are not going to be ashamed to say we are undocumented.
We are going to take pride in that and we are going to push our stories and the stories of our parents to the mainstream so that they know we exist, so they know, and by they I mean the country knows, that we exist, that we are part of this country, that we contribute and that we deserve to be treated as human beings, that we deserve to have some kind of legal protection, that our families deserve to stay together. After 2010, there has been several other demonstrations by undocumented youth, by our parents, in the South also, not just California but in Alabama, for example, parents voluntarily getting arrested to fight against some of the most hateful legislation Alabama. That, to me, has been one of the most inspiring moments of my life so I think there has been several for sure.
Scheer: This is Robert Scheer. I am talking to Lizbeth Mateo, an immigrant activist, a graduate of law school now, and someone who is bucking the system. This is a show on American Originals. Why out of the crazy quilt of our immigrant background and everything else, do we get unique individuals who stand up and stand for something, not just their own personal ambition and in your case, I would consider you an Original American because after all, you are Zapoteca from Oaxaca. I gather indigenous?
Mateo: Yes.Scheer: Yes and you even now what a pre-Spanish language which is something of a revival among younger people trying to learn indigenous languages, that in some cases were disappearing. You are one of the original Americans and this is just an accident of border that you are not considered or entitled to have a casino or something, if we take that kind of advance as an advance.
Let me ask you about your story. Weren’t you in part tempted to do something, that I think we teach too often in our schools, that careerism should trump anything else? That you had a good career before you. Why didn’t you sell out? I guess is the answer. Why did you take this additional burden because otherwise, you are on your way to being a very successful lawyer, why did you endanger that?
Mateo: I think I have been able to get as far as I have been able to get because there has been a lot of people who have supported me. Who have helped me, who have believed in me. I whole-heartedly believe in returning that favor and paying it forward. I know that I didn’t get where I am, I didn’t go to law school to just, out of my own effort. I had to work really hard. I had to work harder than most of my peers but there were a lot of people who believed in me and those are the people that lifted me, who have put me in the places I wanted to go.
I, honestly, feel like I am part of something bigger than myself and my parents have always been very kind people, very generous and they have taught me to care about other people as well, to care about my community, to care about my environment and not just impressions that I make in people but what I can do to better that environment.
I think that is why I didn’t want to just continue my education on my own without being able to, not necessarily inspire, but help other individuals get the same rights that I do enjoy. I think that we are stronger as a community and I will be able to get farther in life if I am not seen as an exception, if I am not seen as … Because I was told many, many times, those immigrants, we don’t support them, we don’t believe they are good for the country but you are different. Growing up in Venice, in the Venice area, Culver City, I had a lot of friends who will say things like that about my parents. People like my parents. “Well, we don’t agree with immigrants, I think they should be deported but you are different”, and so I think that is also what inspired me to show my community, the rest of the community, the rest of the country, there is no such thing as good or bad immigrants, we all have something to contribute and there is plenty of people in our communities that are doing amazing, amazing work and I wanted to showcase and highlight those stories as well.
Scheer: This is Scheer Intelligence. My guest is Lizbeth Mateo. We will be right back.
Scheer: We are back with another addition of Scheer Intelligence and my guest is Lizbeth Mateo. Let me ask you, what is the impact of Trump’s attack? I mean, it is so vicious, so low level, so evil. I use neo-fascism because after all what was fascism? It was blaming the other Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, blaming the other for the economic problems, the social disarray of your society and suddenly, Trump was doing it. “Wow, we need this wall. These people are rapists, we have to get rid of them”, and this is permanent. Is it?
Mateo: I would think so. I think that it is. People won’t forget easily. People will not forget. Trump may disappear. Who knows if he going to win but let’s say that he doesn’t win. He is going to go back to do whatever he wants to do, he is going to disappear but the Republican Party is going to continue having that image of those who just stood there while allowing Trump to say all kinds of awful things about immigrants, about women, so I think that it is permanent. Our communities will remember.
There is obviously some fear and that is unfortunate. Some people are fearing that Trump is actually going to build a wall or that he is going to actually deport people but I think one thing that we are forgetting is that that is actually happening. There is more militarization at the border, there is less and less people coming from Mexico. There is more people that are leaving the country actually. Leaving the US and going back to Mexico. There has been almost three million deportations under the Democrat, President Obama, so that is happening.
What I think is going to last is that we are not going to forget what Trump said, we are not going to forget what the Republican Party said and we are not going to forget what the Democrats did or said in response to that. I think that, my hope is that that fear and that anger that we feel right now, being called rapists and criminals and all kinds of awful things, that they will translate into empowerment. They will translate into actually organizing to say, “Okay, Trump said all these things but if Hilary wins, what is she actually going to do? Not even what is she going to say but what is she going to do for us?”, because there is a lot of people who cannot vote but who are campaigning for Hilary, who are encouraging their friends and their neighbors in their community to vote for Hilary Clinton. I think that whoever becomes President, especially if Hilary Clinton becomes President, she needs to take the community seriously and she needs to do something to pay back what we have done for her. What our community has done for her.
Scheer: Even the traditional trade union movement in this country was not welcoming to immigrants from anywhere, whether they were from Ireland or they were from China, because they thought if you increase the pool of workers, they will be exploited more readily and that argument came to be dropped to a large degree. Still, unfortunately, applied and I am wondering if there aren’t things that can be done in that respect in terms of, say, okay, let’s increase the minimum wage and let’s enforce it. To my mind, that is like a no-brainer. Let’s have something that approximates a living wage. That means people earning that will not become dependent.
Mateo: No, I agree, there is a lot of work that needs to be done. Unfortunately, I think that sometimes employees are the ones that get punished instead of employers who violate the laws. I agree, those laws need to be enforced, there is a need to have a higher wage. California is a very expensive place, LA is a very expensive place to live and the minimum wage that we have is not quite enough for a family, for parents who have children, so I do agree that those laws need to be enforced and I think that when we think of low wage workers, we need to think of them as part of our community because I think that sometimes there is that divide of, “Well, they don’t have documents, so they can’t really demand higher wages, they can’t really demand to be treated, to be protected by the laws that we have”, but I think, at least in State of California, it has been made very clear that the laws, especially labor laws, apply to all workers, apply to all people who are part of our working force.
I do agree that those need to be enforced and there needs to be a recognition that immigrants contribute a lot, whether they are working at a restaurant, in a factory, at a school, whatever it is that they are working or even in underground economy, they still contribute, we still pay taxes. We are not able to get a lot of services, a lot of benefits like going to hospitals for example but we can, in this country, the irony is that we can get an ITIN number which is kind of like a social security number and pay taxes. A lot of people that I know, a lot of immigrant families have done that and the reason they have done that is because they have the hope that someday they are going to be bale to legalize their status and the way they are going to prove what they have contributed, how long they have been in this country and they have been good citizens is by showing the government all these tax forms, all the taxes they have paid.Scheer: The question is, what will be the pressure on the people who, both Republican and Democrats who are running this country after, and clearly for the Democrats and I know you will remind them, Hilary Clinton wouldn’t have one those primaries without a big brown as well as a black support base, expecting some progressive legislation.
Mateo: I think that the community will certainly remind Hilary Clinton that they have been there for her and she needs to be there for us now. I think that is the reason why I am speaking out on my own case even though it is my application for deferred action that is being tentatively denied by the government, which is very ironic, because not just my work but the work of a lot of people like myself, helped create that program, right? I feel like I am being punished for wanting to create more protections for immigrant families and trying to reunite some of these families that the administration has deported but I think we are going to remind Hilary Clinton that we are not going to allow anyone, just like we have done with Trump, I mean there has been a lot of demonstrations against him, there will be demonstrations and work done to make sure that Democrats don’t get to just pay lip service to us, that they actually do something. The things that they promised us. Not just with immigrant community but for workers, women, for the LGBT community because we are all a part of those communities and we care about those issues as well.
Scheer: Let’s conclude by giving people a very clear idea of your case. Not because one human being is more important than others, Lizbeth, but sometimes there is a case that galvanizes public attention. It is a way of defining issues and you are a person who has done all the right things that we expect from a contributing citizen or person in our society, right? You are the model so why don’t we go through this. What is it precisely, because I think we didn’t get it as clearly as we need to, but I just want to be clear on this because I think your case is compelling, that is why I wanted to interview you. Just take us through the ABC’s of what happened to you and what your facing now and how people can support you.
Mateo: People can go to pangealegal.org, that is the website of the non-profit that’s representing me with my deferred action application. In 2015, I applied for deferred action for childhood arrival or DACA, which will give me protection from deportation for two years and it will give me a work permit allowing me to use my legal degree, my law school degree. IN May, I received the first letter of intent to deny citing my exit and my activism as the reason why the government is intending to deny me this benefit. We replied because they asked us to respond to that letter. We replied with ninety pages of letters to support.
Scheer: Summarize the reply.
Mateo: We replied citing that the reason I left was as part of a campaign, as part of …
Scheer: You self-deported.
Mateo: I self-deported in 2013. I was absent for thirteen days which is a very brief period of time, I wasn’t gone forever. Then when I came back, I came back as part of a campaign to reunite families and that is what we were able to do, and I say we, because it wasn’t just me, there were other people who were also involved.
Then, I got another letter of intent to deny in September, citing the same reason for the possible denial. At that point, we decided to respond but also launch a campaign so that is where people can go to pangea.org and find out more about it. We have a petition. We have been able to gather almost three thousand signatures from the community. Over four organizations across the country have signed on to a letter asking the government, the administration, to grant me DACA. Over 250 law professors, many immigration experts and attorneys have signed a letter asking the Obama administration to grant me deferred action so we are launching this campaign, not just to win something for myself, not just to get me a work permit or get me protection under DACA, but to also tell the immigrant community, especially young people that they should not be afraid to continue to organize.
Scheer: Well, and clearly, you are someone with the skillset now that we need. You are a lawyer who graduated from a very prestigious law school, you are bilingual, you know history of your own people back in Mexico and Oaxaca, you can communicate with this very large community that we need to communicate, that needs legal representation, that has dealings with the courts, that needs people, lawyers, who can understand their case and explain it so clearly, you are the model citizen that we should be attracting from all over the world.
I would recommend that people take your case as a test case, not just because you are a delightful, intelligent person, I agree with you, it can’t be just about one person but if this administration, Democrats, which will be continued, presumably, in the White House by another Democrat which has turned down your request so they have campaigned on the idea that they made progress, significant progress, with these executive orders and so forth, from President Obama. If it is Hilary Clinton that comes in, presumably there will be people in the lower levels of the ticket that will also get an edge, maybe they will increase their representation in the House and Senate and if they can’t provide justice to someone like yourself, right?
I would remind people, what you did is you self-deported, something the Republicans have actually called for, Donald Trump even mentioned, you did that to help other people not to help yourself. Not because you suddenly wanted a Mexican vacation or even that you had to visit a sick relative, you did this as an act of altruism to help people unite their families. To call attention to their situation. You risked your status going across the border for thirteen days to help others get back in. There should be a statue to you someday. No, really, that is an exemplary behavior, right? It will be a real test, I would suggest people who listen to this should follow it, see what happens here. Whether the new administration, whichever if it is Republican, but particularly if it is Democrat because they have said they have a much better position on this whole issue, deliver.
You will be a very good case. There will be others to see whether they deliver because we can’t go on saying, “Oh, we respect immigrant rights”, but then well I can be the deported in chief because I am better than the other one. I am the lesser evil. That is not enough. If the lesser evil deports two, three million people, that is a substantial amount of evil in terms of what harm it brings to people so I hope people keep in mind the fate of Lizbeth Mateo. Her case, not just because she is so exemplary but because it will tell you whether any administration that comes into power is really serious about dealing with what is of this country, it’s fundamental, most pressing human rights issue, in my view. Thank you for being here.
Mateo: Thank you.
Scheer: This is another edition of “Scheer Intelligence.” Our producers are Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. The engineers at KCRW are Cat Yore and Mario Diaz. See you next week.