A 33-year-old woman has become the first undocumented immigrant named to a statewide post in California.
Lizbeth Mateo, an attorney and immigrant rights activist, was appointed to an advisory committee that seeks to improve access to college for low-income California students, according to the office of state senate president pro tem Kevin de Leon.
The committee’s formal name is a bureaucratic mouthful — the California Student Opportunity and Access Program Project Grant Advisory Committee, or “Cal-SOAP,” for short — but its mission is one that will be familiar to Mateo: to find ways to help students from underserved communities go to college.
She was once such a student, she said.
Mateo was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, and was brought to Los Angeles by her parents at age 14. She didn’t learn English until high school, but became the first person in her family to graduate from college, according to de Leon’s office.
Mateo went on to earn a law degree from Santa Clara University in 2016, passed the California State Bar exam last year and now has a private practice in Los Angeles.
In law school, however, self-doubt would sometimes creep in because of her background. In a tweet Wednesday, Mateo said she often wondered if she was fit to write for the law journal or participate in moot court because not many people with her background did so.
“I always went for it [because] even if I felt inadequate I thought I could add something of value,” Mateo tweeted.
She said she hoped to do the same on the new committee, before indicating in a hashtag that she was “undocumented and unafraid.”
Despite the last sentiment, Mateo may still encounter resistance in her new role: Her tweets announcing her appointment were met with dozens of replies, some derogatory, from critics who told her she should be deported.
Citing EdSource data, de Leon’s office said an estimated 72,300 undocumented students are enrolled in California’s public colleges and universities. (Of those, about 60,000 attend community colleges, 8,300 are in the California State University system and 4,000 are on University of California campuses.)
In a statement, Mateo said she had “no doubt” California could do more for all underrepresented students, especially in regions with low college participation rates.
“While undocumented students have become more visible in our state, they remain underrepresented in places where decisions that affect them are being made,” Mateo said. “I hope to be able to draw from my own experiences as an undocumented, first generation college graduate, and from experiences of students like myself who are currently navigating or will soon navigate the higher education system.”
Mateo’s activist history goes back more than a decade to when she was a student at California State University, Northridge, where she publicly advocated with other undocumented students for the passage of the Dream Act, according to de Leon’s office.
In 2015, Mateo applied for legal status under the deferred action for childhood arrivals program, better known as DACA, but has twice been denied because she briefly traveled to Mexico in 2013 as part of the “Bring Them Home” campaign to see how border agents would react when they tried to reenter the United States.
de Leon, who also chairs the Senate Rules Committee, said he appointed Mateo because of her background, as someone who “embodies California values and the American dream.”
“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 said in a statement.
The appointment appears to be the latest example of California’s resistance to the Trump administration and its policies, particularly with regards to immigration. It was finalized one day after President Trump made his first visit to California to review prototypes for a proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — a trip de Leon blasted as “a political stunt to rally his base around a stupid boondoggle.”
The feeling seemed mutual. During his visit, Trump slammed California officials for allowing the state to go “totally out of control.”
“You have sanctuary cities where you have criminals living in sanctuary cities, and then the mayor of Oakland goes out and notifies when ICE is going in to pick them up,” Trump told reporters in San Diego Tuesday as he visited border wall prototypes. “People are going to start to move pretty soon. If you don’t have this kind of wall, drugs are pouring through in California. Can’t do it.”
Since Trump took office, several California officials — from representatives to mayors across the state — have spoken out against the president and vowed to fight back against an increasing number of immigration sweeps that ICE has carried out.
“California thrives because we welcome immigrants and innovators from across the globe,” Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, wrote to the White House in a letter criticizing Trump’s proposed border wall.
Tensions between federal and state officials came to a head last month after Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf tipped off residents of the city to possible ICE raids. Last week, the Justice Department sued California for allegedly violating the Constitution with “sanctuary” policies that protect undocumented immigrants.
It’s unclear if Mateo’s appointment was intentionally scheduled to coincide with Trump’s visit. But a news release from de Leon’s office announcing Mateo’s appointment made clear Trump was front of mind.
“While Donald Trump fixates on walls,” the statement said, “California will continue to concentrate on opportunities.”