By Kirk Semple on December 3, 2013
Cesar Vargas seemed to have checked all the right boxes in his quest to become a lawyer in New York State. He made honors at both college and law school in New York City, his home since coming to the United States from Mexico at age 5. He interned with a State Supreme Court judge, a Brooklyn district attorney and a United States congressman. And he passed the state bar exam.
The only obstacle that remained before he could become a certified lawyer was an evaluation of his background and character by a committee appointed by the State Supreme Court.
That committee rated him “stellar.” In the same stroke, however, they also recommended against his certification as a lawyer. The reason: Mr. Vargas is an unauthorized immigrant. The question of whether he should be allowed to practice law, the committee said, was better suited to the courts or the Legislature to decide. The matter, which now rests with the State Supreme Court’s appellate division, has become a test case for whether immigrants in this country illegally can practice law in New York.
“I feel like I’m getting left behind,” Mr. Vargas, 30, said this week of his thwarted bid to become a lawyer. “After sacrificing so much, it’s left me with the sense that all that work was for nothing.”
Increasingly, elected officials and judges across the country have been wrestling with whether immigrants without papers should be allowed to practice law. The trend comes as political discord has bogged down the debate in Congress over an overhaul of immigration law, compelling state governments to address issues of integration and enforcement on their own.
In California, the Legislature, prompted by the case of an unauthorized Mexican immigrant who had applied for admission to the bar, passed a measure that was signed into law in October allowing certain unauthorized immigrants to practice law in that state. The matter is also being weighed by the California Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Florida Supreme Court, prompted by a case similar to New York’s and California’s, has also been considering the issue.
In New York, the evaluators for the appellate division of the Supreme Court seemed to struggle with the quandary that Mr. Vargas’s pioneering bid posed.
“All his life he was told he would not be able to do things because of his status,” they wrote in their report. “We applaud Cesar Adrian Vargas’s devotion to the country he’s lived in for most of his life.” But, they added, “Some matters, such as immigration status, are better left to the decisions of courts or to acts of the Legislature.”
Last week, lawyers for Mr. Vargas, who has in recent years become a national activist for immigration reform, submitted a brief to the appellate division of the New York Supreme Court arguing why he should be allowed to practice law.
State law, he explained, does not appear to make immigration status a criterion for admission. The crux of his argument, he said, is a paragraph in state judiciary law that specifically precludes race, color, creed, national origin or “alienage” — being a foreigner — as grounds for prohibiting admission.
Mr. Vargas also argued that he is currently allowed to work legally under a program, known as deferred action, that provides work authorization to qualified immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.
He said he is heartened by the new law in California though wary about what that state’s Supreme Court might decide on the matter. The California case involves another Mexican immigrant, Sergio C. Garcia, who, like Mr. Vargas, came to the country as a child.
Mr. Garcia, 36, graduated from Cal Northern School of Law in Chico, Calif., and passed the bar exam in 2009. But while the state’s bar examiners recommended his admission to the bar, the matter shifted to the State Supreme Court. Even before the court had ruled, however, the State Legislature passed the bill allowing unauthorized immigrants to practice law. Nonetheless, Mr. Garcia said, the Supreme Court is expected to take up the case again in January.
“It is what it is,” he said, sounding frustrated. “Hopefully thereafter I’ll be allowed to finally win my dream.”
The Florida Supreme Court’s deliberations revolve around the case of José Manuel Godínez Samperio, 27, a Mexican immigrant who was brought to the country when he was 9.
He became an Eagle Scout and his high school’s valedictorian, then went on to graduate from law school at Florida State University and pass the state bar exam in 2011.
“The ultimate fault of all of this is Congress,” said Mr. Godínez Samperio, who currently is authorized to work under the deferred action program. “They have refused to clarify the law and they have refused to pass immigration reform.”
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