Undocumented Lawyer Admitted to NY Bar

     (CN) – An undocumented law graduate in the United States under the Obama administration’s immigration reform policies can also be admitted to the New York state bar, a state appeals court ruled.
     Cesar Vargas was born in Mexico and entered the United States illegally when he was five years old. He went to New York public schools, interned for a member of Congress, graduated from law school at the City University of New York, and passed the state’s bar exam in 2011.
     He applied for deferred action from removal under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). While that application was pending he submitted an application for admission to practice law in New York, explaining that he would receive employment authorization when his DACA application was approved.
     In 2013, the Department of Homeland Security approved Vargas’ DACA application and he submitted proof of his employment authorization, a social security card, and drivers license to the Committee on Character and Fitness.
     The committee rejected Vargas’ application, despite finding that he “appears to have stellar character,” in order to have the appeals court issue a decision on his immigration status.
     On Wednesday, the Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department found that while federal law generally disapproves of giving state professional licenses to undocumented immigrants, it also ultimately leaves the matter to the states to determine whether aliens are eligible for state licenses.
     “In light of the opt-out provision offered by federal law, we reject the assertion of the United States that the statute constitutes a ‘comprehensive band [or prohibition] on the receipt of benefits from the state,” the court said in a per curiam opinion.
     Courts in California and Florida recently permitted unauthorized immigrants to practice law, but the legislatures of those states passed laws to allow licensing of authorized immigrants. A similar bill died in the New York Legislature last year.
     But the appeals court ruled that it did not need legislation to qualify Vargas to join the bar.
     “We find that that Mr. Vargas’ undocumented immigration status, in and of itself, does not reflect adversely upon his general fitness to practice law. Mr. Vargas did not enter the United States in violation of the immigration laws of his own volition, but rather, came to the United States at the hand of his mother.”
     The panel took guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court’s recognition that “visiting condemnation on the head of an infant is illogical and unjust,” and noted that Vargas has no ongoing connection with the country of his birth.
     “We find that the undocumented status of an individual applicant does not, alone, suggest that the applicant is not possessed of the qualities that enable attorneys to vigorously defend their client’s interests within the bounds of the law, nor does it suggest that the applicant cannot protect, as an officer of the court, the rule of law and the administration of justice,” the 23-page opinion stated.
     Vargas told the New York Times, “This is precedent that I wanted to make. I think this is really great momentum that is going to extend to other policies.”
     “Cesar Vargas exemplifies the qualities and commitment this country needs in our workforce,” said Juan Cartagena, president of Latino Justice, the organization that represented Vargas before the court. “I applaud the Second Department for affirming what we all see in Mr. Vargas; that he is a welcome addition to the bar. 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.”

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