LOS ANGELES—A young activist who spent the past decade fighting for immigrant rights is now being denied the same rights she helped to secure for others.
Lizbeth Mateo was born in Mexico but grew up in Venice, California, near the famous boardwalk. Soon after graduating high school she started collecting signatures on the boardwalk for a petition urging then-President George W. Bush to support the DREAM Act.
A few years later, in 2010, she became one of the first undocumented immigrant rights activists to get arrested for DREAM Act protests when she refused to leave Arizona Senator John McCain’s office.
That was thought to be one of the first acts of civil disobedience by undocumented young people in the United States. But it wouldn't be Mateo's last.
Mateo's organizing was part of a groundswell that ultimately pushed President Barack Obama to create DACA, the executive order that protects some immigrants from deportation. Amazingly and frustratingly, Mateo, now 32, might not be able to benefit from the fruits of her own labor; immigration officials say they want to deny her application for DACA.
“It’s retaliation for my organizing and an attempt to silence the community, not just me but an entire community,” Mateo told me.
For Mateo, the rub appears to be a 2013 protest that was livestreamed to more than 10,000 viewers. It occurred on July 22, when Mateo and eight other young immigrants dressed in graduation caps and gowns entered a U.S. point of entry in Nogales, Arizona to request asylum.
The protest made national headlines, because Mateo risked her immigration status by voluntarily returning to Mexico to reenter the U.S. with the other demonstrators. It turned out to be a costly trip to her native country. Mateo says U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has since sent her two letters stating that they plan to deny her DACA application because of that 13-day stay in Mexico. USCIS declined Fusion's request to comment on Mateo’s case.
DACA eligibility guidelines stipulate that all applicants must have “continuously resided in the United States since June 15, 2007.”
DACA applicants can request a special "advanced parole" to leave the U.S., but Mateo didn't do that. She says she knew the rules but decided to take a calculated risk to draw attention to “the need to reunite families who have been deported by the Obama administration.”
“We need to call attention to the almost two million families who have been separated,” Mateo told Fusion.
Mateo is the second immigrant rights organizer to go public with her story after receiving a letter explaining the federal government intends to deny their DACA application. The first was Nadia Sol Ireri Unzueta Carrasco, who was was initially denied DACA status because she participated in nonviolent civil disobedience protests in Chicago. USCIS reversed their decision earlier this month, but only after Unzueta Carrasco filed a lawsuit.
Both Latinx women believe their DACA denial is meant to be punishment for participating in a protest movement that helped spawn DACA in the first place.
DACA decisions cannot be appealed, but if circumstances change applicants can apply again if they pay another, non-refundable $465 fee. In cases where a federal government deems an applicant is a threat, a denial can lead to deportation.
DACA has transformed the lives of more than 700,000 undocumented young immigrants who are now able to live and work in the United States without the constant threat of deportation. About 87% of applications are approved, according to USCIS.
But the program is also discretionary, and in the case of Mateo she thinks that discretion is being used punitively.
“The downside of DACA is that an agency just decides to deny applications and there’s no appeal process,” said Mateo.
Mateo applied for DACA for the first time in October 2015. She’s been waiting to hear an answer for a year now.
Immigration lawyers are hoping the U.S. will now use that same discretionary authority to approve Mateo's application—as they have in other cases where applicants left the country.
“Eligibility factors for DACA and prosecutorial discretion are not laws or regulations, they are only guidelines. USCIS and ICE must use their discretion in case-by-case determinations to approve cases based on the all the circumstances and not just on individual factors that do not tell the true story of the individuals before them,” said immigration lawyer Mony Ruiz-Velasco, executive director at PASO - West Suburban Action Project in Chicago.
In the meantime, Mateo is now putting her experience with activism to work fighting for her own right to live in the U.S. She has gathered letters of support from former professors, immigration law experts and even members of congress. An online petition picked up more than 2,600 signatures in just over a week.
“I don’t want to lose this fight because I earned DACA,” Mateo said.