Advocating for Society’s Most Vulnerable

Elizabeth Hildebrand Matherne

Matherne is pictured on the right with staff of the
SPLC office in Ocilla.

Elizabeth Hildebrand Matherne has always had a heart for the underdog. From starting out as a public defender in Orlando, to successfully handling humanitarian and family-based immigration applications, like asylum, as a solo law practitioner in Atlanta, she has always had a love for helping people.

But her spirit for practicing law began to break in 2016. In her legal practice in Atlanta, she found it more and more difficult to help asylum seekers find sanctuary in the United States. As a result, her practice became a series of free asylum seeker consultations. Matherne thought it unfair to take money from clients when the likelihood of a successful outcome was remote.

Something Needed to Change

“I noticed that the sadness of their stories and the insurmountable odds they face in this jurisdiction started affecting my personal life in ways that I couldn’t manage. And figured that something needed to give. So I had always, even in law school, I had dreamed of being the law librarian,” said Matherne.

So after much thought, she decided to pull the plug and put her legal practice on hold. Matherne began studying in a distance learning program for a master’s degree in library science from the University of Alabama. She received her degree in 2017.

But it was a tough time for Matherne, as she hated leaving the practice of immigration law.

“I really was despondent and brokenhearted in many ways, but the time winding down my law firm and pursuing my master’s degree allowed me much needed time for reflection,” said Matherne.

That changed with the launch of the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The program provides pro bono legal representation to asylum seekers detained in the rural Southeastern United States. Elizabeth saw the opportunity to continue fighting as a part of SPLC’s groundbreaking direct representation initiative.

“The SIFI locations are near immigration detention centers in the Southeast, which are far away from the detainees’ family members, where they would find attorneys and even where the courts are, in some cases,” said Matherne. “There are close to a thousand immigration detainees in this little bitty town in the middle of rural south Georgia.”

When a position for the SIFI program was created at the Irwin County Immigrant Detention Center in the small town of Ocilla, Georgia, Matherne approached her husband, Joe, then an Atlanta accountant, about the job. The couple has three children together.

“We thought it would be an opportunity for the children to get out of the city, and have more of the things we love like open spaces and family-centered living. As Georgia Southern graduates, we both always wanted to move back to south Georgia. When I had done work there in the past, I remembered Ocilla as being a really charming little town.”

Matherne now is senior lead attorney in Ocilla for SPLC, and the attorney of record for all the SIFI cases there.

Childhood Background Led to Georgia Southern

Matherne credits her childhood educational experiences in Atlanta, plus her time at Georgia Southern, for providing her the foundation for service and helping marginalized individuals in society.

For a time in elementary, and all of middle school, she was in the magnet school program in DeKalb County. Matherne was bused out of her neighborhood to a majority African- American school.

“I think those experiences of growing up in a very diverse environment gave me a different perspective than many middle class students have,” said Matherne. “So I was really excited about Georgia Southern, and getting back to a very welcoming and diverse campus.”

In addition to the friendliness and diversity, Matherne was drawn to Georgia Southern because of the international program and the chance to get an interdisciplinary degree. She received her B.S. in international trade in 2001.

There were opportunities for me to do honors classes, many volunteer options and I got to study abroad one summer. I interned in Segovia, Spain, and it really was life changing.”

Matherne met her husband on campus too. They were both volunteer tutors for the freshman retention program, and spent many hours working together. They recently celebrated their 16th wedding anniversary.

Happy and Proud of What She Has Accomplished

“I’m so happy now. I took my daughter to riding lessons last night. It’s awesome that we’re in a community where there are things to do like that.”

Matherne is proud of the resiliency and fortitude that it took to take a step back and look at things honestly and unapologetically. Proud to have returned to her passion, helping people.

“I have stood up for people who had no one else on their side. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud of finding a way to continue to do the work that I love, but finding a way to do it in a more sustainable and balanced way. I literally can’t believe I get to do this job every day. I love it so much.”

— Liz Walker