Cesar Vargas had become accustomed to waiting to fully realize his goals and dreams. The 31-year-old undocumented immigrant, who has lived in the U.S. since he was 5 years old, had to endure living under the threat of deportation until age 27. After completing high school, undergraduate studies and law school in New York City, as well as passing the state bar exam in 2011, he learned that he would have to wait once again while the state decided if it was okay for Vargas to be a licensed attorney.
Nearly four years later, Vargas -- who passed the New York bar exam on his first try in July 2011 and is now a nationally recognized activist in the immigrant rights movement -- learned that his wait was finally over. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court decided Wednesday that Vargas had a legal right to be permitted to the state bar and obtain his law license, making him the first undocumented law graduate to practice law in New York.
Undocumented immigrant advocates say Vargas’ breakthrough reflects a growing controversy around what to do with law degree-holding Dreamers who have temporarily been authorized to live and work in the U.S. under the federal government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. A growing number of undocumented immigrants with deferred status are attending college at in-state tuition rates and graduating from law schools but find that they are stopped at the final step of obtaining their law licenses, according to immigration experts.
Vargas's mother brought him to the U.S. from Mexico 25 years ago. His mother, now 70 years old, has children that are U.S. citizens and would have been eligible for some legal rights under President Barack Obama's court-blocked immigration proposal. The program, known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, would allow undocumented parents to receive a deportation deferral and permission to work.
LatinoJustice, the New York-based civil rights organization representing Vargas, said Wednesday that New York’s Supreme Court had “explicitly” agreed that undocumented law graduates with federal deportation deferrals “can meet the good character and general fitness requirement for NY bar admission.” The organization also sees Vargas’s victory as one of national importance, as the court found that undocumented individuals are not barred by federal law from being professionally licensed unless a state has passed legislation to the contrary. Furthermore, a state’s sovereign authority to divide power among its branches of government typically grants the judiciary powers to regulate professional law licenses.
“This court did not shy away from the larger issues in the immigration debate, and in doing so, gives hope to many aspiring Latino law students who also have legal presence like Mr. Vargas," Juan Cartagena, the president and general counsel for LatinoJustice, said in a statement.
It’s not the first time a state court has granted a law license to an undocumented immigrant. Personal injury attorney Sergio Garcia, a 38-year-old undocumented Mexican immigrant in California who was brought to the country at 17 months old, won a legal challenge in 2013 that allowed him to practice law in the state. But Garcia was too old to qualify for DACA and received a green card through his father, who became a permanent resident under a 1986 amnesty law, CNN reported.
Most Americans continue to support the idea that undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. should be allowed to stay in the country legally, so long as they meet certain requirements, according to a new Pew Research Center national survey released Thursday. The survey showed that 51 percent of respondents believe immigrants strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents, while 41 percent said they were taking away jobs, housing and healthcare.
Vargas is one of more than 787,000 undocumented immigrants who were approved for the first wave of DACA through December, according to the latest figures from the Department of Homeland Security. There is no publicly available data on the number of undocumented students attending law schools, according to the Bickel & Brewer Latino Institute for Human Rights at New York University's School of Law. Approximately 8,000 undocumented youth who were eligible for DACA in 2013 had completed a professional degree, according to a Migration Policy Institute study released at the one year anniversary of the initial DACA program.
In an interview last week with the International Business Times, Vargas said the lack of movement on immigration reform and Republican-led efforts to block Obama's executive actions continues to harm his mother. The measure would allow her to visit the graves of her parents and other relatives who have died in Mexico while she waited for legal status in the U.S., Vargas said. He hasn't given up his hope that his mother will get the closure she desires.
"There's nothing Cesar wouldn't do for his mother," Perez said, adding that his client still needed to certify his completion of pro-bono legal work to be officially sworn and licensed in New York. "I'm certain he'll go to work, open up his office and utilize his law license, which he has fought so hard to get."