The American Bar Association (ABA) has voted to allow immigrants in the US illegally to take state bar exams in order to become licensed lawyers. The standard is already in effect in seven states, with the resolution providing guidance for others.
The “American Bar Association supports the principle that bar admission should not be denied based solely on immigration status,”stated the ABA’s House of Delegates resolution, passed Monday at its annual meeting.
The ABA suggests the resolution should be passed into state law. In its current form, the resolution isn’t enforceable, but it makes clear that the federal government should not get in the way of states granting a legal license to a candidate who passes the bar exam, even if they are in the country illegally.
“It provides guidance to courts and legislatures who are grappling with this [issue], and overall Congress itself, to say the legal profession approves of this,” attorney Cesar Vargas told RT.
Mexican-born Vargas is a participant in the Obama’s administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. He went through a four-year legal battle to open the admission of “undocumented immigrants” into the legal profession.
Thomas Kim, whose South Korean parents brought him to the United States on a tourist visa and then never returned home, sponsored the resolution. Kim said he faces an uncertain future, as it is still unclear if he’ll be eligible to practice law in Oregon after he earns his law degree from Arizona State University in 2018.
Kim won a full-time scholarship to study an undergraduate degree and won a full tuition merit scholarship to study law at Arizona State University.
“I am wanting to become a lawyer. I am wanting to become a lawyer who gives back to his community and gives back to this country that has been so generous to him. So I ask for your support,” pleaded Kim in a video posted by the ABA.
“This is nothing new. This is in total alignment with what the ABA has been doing since conception of its origin – commitment to diversity, commitment to equality and commitment to fairness,” he added.
Opposing the resolution was a delegate from the State Bar of Georgia.
“I would love to call them brothers and sisters of law but as lawyers we are tasked with upholding the rule of law. How can we uphold the law by supporting those who are violating the law to join our profession?” argued John R. B. Long.
Even if the resolution was to pass, Long said, individuals who clear the state bar will not be able to find employment with the government, and will have difficulty getting hired by most law firms.
“The practical effect is that you will be giving false hope to people who will take out a tremendous amount of debt as an undocumented alien, go to law school, sit for the bar, and be unemployable. For these reasons I disagree… and ask that the board vote against this resolution,” Long said.
So far, seven states have either allowed illegal immigrants to become lawyers, or made changes to the law to allow such a provision.
California passed a law in 2013 to allow some illegal immigrants to practice law. Florida officials facilitated the process for the Mexican-born Jose Godinez-Samperio to become a lawyer in 2014. Vargas was admitted to the New York state bar in 2016.
When it comes to such people finding employment, Vargas told RT that the law is malleable.
“It depends on the state agency. I could work for the Mayor’s office, I could work for a city council member but I couldn’t work for the District Attorney because you have to be a citizen,” Vargas said. “Even without DACA you could set up your own law firm. Law is creative and unfortunately I think some people think of it as a very academic issue, but legally there are creative ways to achieve the same results.”
DACA is a deportation relief and work permission program created by the Obama administration. It first accepted applicants in 2012 from immigrants who arrived to the US as minors and did not have citizenship status.
Under the program, 800,000 people were granted protection from deportation, but it is a temporary benefit that needs to be renewed every two years.
The Trump administration has kept the program in place but the deadline for its renewal is September 5; and ten states are threatening to take the administration to court unless it ends DACA.
“People like myself, I spent a decade being undocumented but during that time I went to college, went to law school, people started business, become licensed professionals, and if anything this reaffirms our commitment towards a permanent legislative solution,” Vargas told RT.