Lizbeth Mateo JD ’16 and the fight for immigrants’ rights is the feature of a new documentary short by social impact studio Optimist. Directed by Chris Temple and Zach Ingrasci, the film world premiered in the short competition at the Tribeca Film Festival and won best documentary at the 2020 Boston Short Film Festival. Produced by social impact studio Optimist, “The Undocumented Lawyer” follows attorney Lizbeth Mateo as she starts a law practice, hires four employees and takes an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution. However, Mateo also has no legal options to stay in the country as she is undocumented, having crossed the border illegally at 14. The film will air on HBO Latino and be available on HBO Max in March.
For more information on Lizbeth Mateo and her work, see this 2019 Santa Clara Law Magazine Q&A with Lizbeth, and this 2018 Santa Clara Magazine story on Lizbeth. You can also watch the trailer for the film here, and learn more about the film here.
Q&A with Jenna Kelly, director of marketing for Optomist Films and the producer of “The Undocumented Lawyer”
How did you discover the story of Lizbeth Mateo?
It all came together in 2017, when a close friend was seeking legal representation in immigration court. We saw him struggling against an overwhelming system that seemed set up for him to fail. For him to navigate this without a lawyer felt unimaginable.
While looking for legal advice, we read an article about Lizbeth in the New York Times, and we reached out. Lizbeth immediately struck us as different. She wasn’t your typical lawyer — the fight for her clients was personal and impassioned.
And after we’d spent a few months filming together, Lizbeth invited us to join her as she visited her client, Edith. And that’s when the film really started to take form. We’ve just been so thankful to collaborate with Lizbeth and Edith to tell their incredibly inspiring story, and to now get to share it with all of you.
What made you want to tell this story through a documentary film?
Our goals are in service of igniting a national conversation about undocumented rights, with Lizbeth at the center of the fight. We have a robust impact campaign to accompany the film that includes advocacy and education, but also a fund to support Lizbeth’s legal work on behalf of Edith and other undocumented clients who are not guaranteed a lawyer in immigration court.
What most surprised you about meeting and working with Lizbeth?
I never stop being surprised by how much Lizbeth takes on. She’s a lawyer running her own practice and representing a lot of immigrants like Edith. She’s also still an activist, speaking at many community events. She’s an aunt. She’s a boxer. And she puts 100% into everything. We’re so lucky she had the time to join us in making this film and that she also recognized how it could be a tool for education and change.
What have been audience reactions to the film so far?
Really great! The film has gotten into some of the best film festivals, from its Tribeca premiere to Hot Springs to DOC NYC. It’s been warmly received by all of the festival audiences. It won the “Breaking Barriers” award at Rhode Island Film Festival. So many people who watch walk away inspired by Lizbeth. And people are also donating to The Legal Fund to Protect Asylum Seekers, which supports Lizbeth’s work. Finally, people can also bring the film to their own schools, universities, nonprofits or faith groups by booking a group screening with us at undocumentedlawyer.org.
What most inspires you about the work Lizbeth is doing?
Lizbeth is an incredibly unique figure in the fight for undocumented rights. She rebels against the broken system but also works within that same system as an attorney. She’s faced backlash and death threats but she won’t back down, returning to the tactics of Civil Rights activists to change unjust laws. She has a vision for a different America, and it’s something every American needs to see.
She’s such an inspiration to us. And we hope she can also be an inspiration to many undocumented youth who may not know that they, too, could become a lawyer. Many people don’t know that it’s possible!
What do you hope viewers will learn from your film?
Lizbeth says in the film that she believed that “this country is about giving you the opportunity to actually fight.” We believe she shouldn’t have to fight alone. Our film is meant to build Lizbeth a community of supporters so she can continue to keep families, like Edith’s, from being unjustly separated by our broken immigration system.