News & Politics

An Undocumented Immigrant’s Probation Stalls Quest for NY Law License

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A landmark court ruling earlier this month gave Cesar Vargas the victory he’d been waiting for since 2012: He would be able to practice law in New York, despite being an undocumented immigrant. But a blemish on his record — a trespassing charge in the state of Iowa, of all places — has put a temporary hold on his plans.

While the Supreme Court of the State of New York ruled on June 3 that Vargas, a 31-year-old activist born in Puebla, Mexico, and raised in Brooklyn, could practice law, his bar application was still pending. At the same time, Vargas was facing trespassing charges stemming from a January incident at Steve King’s Iowa Freedom Summit in Des Moines, Iowa. A vocal and longtime activist on immigrant issues with the DREAM Action Coalition, Vargas was there to challenge 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls on their positions on immigration. Specifically, he interrupted a speech by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to ask whether he would support deporting Vargas’s 70-year-old mother, who has been in the country illegally for more than 25 years. Vargas and another protester were arrested — the event was private, and neither had been invited. He was ordered to pay a $100 fine and was placed on one year’s probation. Though he has paid the fines, a county prosecutor in Iowa has denied Vargas’s request to be released from probation, putting his status as an aspiring New York lawyer in jeopardy — at least temporarily — as New York typically doesn’t swear in new attorneys until they’ve satisfied any outstanding legal sentences.

“Essentially the county prosecutor is saying that I still haven’t been rehabilitated and that I am still a danger to society,” Vargas tells the Voice. “I would respond: ‘The man who murdered nine people in Charleston is a danger to society, not someone embracing his or her freedom of speech.’?”

It had been a long journey to the bar for Vargas. He was brought across the U.S.-Mexico border by his mother at the age of five, stopping briefly in California before making the journey to New York City. In Brooklyn, he attended James Madison High School and St. Francis College before graduating from the City University of New York Law School in 2011. The co-director of the DREAM coalition and a former law intern for a New York State Supreme Court justice, Vargas boasted an impeccable résumé — his record was almost unblemished.

June has been a whirlwind month for Vargas. The disappointment of the Iowa ruling was in stark contrast to the thrill — and relief — he felt just two weeks earlier when he found out that the Supreme Court had ruled in his favor, allowing him to join the bar.

“I had no clue that I was going to be admitted,” he remembers. “I had no clue whether I was actually going to be a licensed lawyer. But I did know that we had to push the boundaries. This decision places New York, again, as a national leader, because for the first time there was a court that embraced this power to really ensure that the doors are open for everyone.”

Still, the absence of U.S. citizenship has stood as an immovable obstacle in Vargas’s path for most of his adult life. In 2013, despite a subcommittee reporting that he appeared to possess “stellar character,” Vargas’s application to the New York bar was denied solely on the basis of his legal status. But that all changed on June 3 when the Supreme Court overturned the initial decision, writing that an individual’s undocumented status did not prevent him or her from “vigorously” defending a client’s interests and protecting the rule of law.

“We find that Mr. Vargas’s undocumented immigration status, in and of itself, does not reflect adversely upon his general fitness to practice law,” the opinion reads. “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 age of five at the hand of his mother.”

The ruling hinged largely on Vargas’s protection under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, as well as the argument that the state’s jurisdiction to regulate its lawyers trumped federal immigration law. The decision is expected to establish precedent that could open doors for other undocumented immigrants hoping to practice law in New York State and beyond.

“It’s not just about one person,” Vargas says. “My commitment is to the community that got me here, and to the country that has given me so much.”

While Vargas hopes to use his license to continue to fight for the rights of others, the first person he spoke with after receiving the good news was his mother, the woman who had fought and toiled on his behalf for decades.

“The first person I called was my mother to kind of just say, ‘Hey, we did it.’ Because of her I was able to get a college education, a legal education,” he says. “I think this decision really opens the door and really lives up to the ideal of what it means to be the gateway of the American Dream in New York.”

Though immigration reform continues to face harsh resistance, Vargas’s victory represents a glimmer of hope for change, a sign that progress is indeed possible.

“We become jaded with the politics of this nation,” he says, “but once in a while we are reminded that we are moving forward in the right direction.”