Cesar Vargas filed an application to practice law Monday in New York, forcing the state to become at least the third to consider allowing undocumented immigrants into the legal profession.
As a potential beneficiary of the new federal policy allowing people brought illegally to the United States as children to apply for work authorization, Vargas has reason to hope.
"We're not asking for special benefits," Vargas told The Huffington Post. "I want them to look at my character and who I am, not my immigration status."
Brought to New York from Puebla, Mexico, at the age of 5, Vargas dreams of joining the military to serve in the Judge Advocate General's Corps. (Watch Vargas discuss his military dream in a 2010 press conference below.)
But upon graduating from City University of New York and passing the bar exam last year, he didn't immediately apply to practice law in the state. Instead, Vargas, who has pushed for the federal Dream Act, helped launch the consulting and advocacy firm DRM Capitol Group, which lobbies to pass the federal legislation and supports similar state-level initiatives.
Vargas said the Obama administration's decision this year to defer deportation for people who, like him, were brought to the United States illegally as children made him more optimistic about his chances of becoming a lawyer. The new federal policy allows those under age 31 who arrived in this country before age 16 to apply for work authorization. Vargas, 29, applied for deferred action two weeks ago and has a fingerprint appointment scheduled.
"What's the point of licensing someone if they can't even work?" Vargas said. "With deferred action, we're more hopeful."
He also comes armed with glowing letters of support from people in high places.
"I thought so much of his work ethic that I asked Cesar to be my teaching assistant for my Criminal Law class during his second year at CUNY Law," wrote Michelle Anderson, the dean of the law school. "It is worth noting that there is no prohibition in New York law against a specific category of persons becoming members of the Bar. The Appellate Division should not develop such an unprecedented exclusion."
Another letter, signed by members of Congress including Reps. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) and Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), takes a more general approach:
To deny undocumented students the opportunity to become doctors or lawyers or to practice another profession is to deny the State of New York and our nation the benefits of an educated, talented and tax-paying workforce.
Undocumented immigrants in at least two other states have applied to practice law.
Jose Godinez-Samperio's case is pending before the Florida Supreme Court. The justices appeared to view his request for admission to the bar with skepticism at a hearing earlier this month, according to the Associated Press, but were considering delaying their decision to see if Godinez-Samperio, 25, secured work authorization under the federal deferred action policy. Godinez-Samperio had filed his bar application before President Barack Obama announced the new policy.
The California Supreme Court is looking at a similar case in Sergio Garcia's request for admission to the bar. Although the state bar association has recommended allowing him to practice law, the court is weighing whether his license would conflict with federal laws that prohibit knowingly contracting with undocumented workers and that bar states from providing "public benefits" to undocumented immigrants. At 35, Garcia is too old to qualify for deferred deportation, but could work as an independent contractor, the California State Bar said in a court filing.