Law Graduate Passes New York State Bar Exam, May Not Practice Law Due to Immigration Status

Imagine you worked hard and were a top performer in grade school, then were admitted to college. Your family made endless financial sacrifices to make sure you could attend college (and you hold down a job or two as well). You graduate and decide to apply for admission to law school — and you were accepted. You endured three years of sleepless nights, lectures, exams, internships and graduated from law school. Then, you focused all of your time and energy into taking the Bar exam — and you passed — only to have your Bar admission put in limbo. Why? Because your parents brought you into the country illegally when you were a young child.

Can a person be denied admission to the practice of law based upon his immigration status?

In the case of Cesar Vargas, a graduate of a New York City law school who was brought to the United States illegally when he was five years old, this question is key to his ability to practice law in the State of New York. And, as of now, the answer for him is unclear. The New York State Board of Bar Examiners could deny Mr. Vargas admission to the Bar on character and fitness grounds related to his immigration status.

Currently, there are two cases pending before courts in California and Florida, challenging the denial of Bar admission in those states on both state and federal constitutional grounds. For now, Mr. Vargas has adopted a “wait and see” attitude toward his own Bar admission, pending results of the California and Florida cases. However, the constitutionality of making a distinction between persons with legal immigration status and those without legal status for these purposes is unclear. The United States Supreme Court has held that discriminating against children without legal immigration status in public education is unconstitutional, but the Court’s holding in that case was extremely narrow, and arguably does not apply beyond the compulsory public education context.

What is certain, however, is that until Mr. Vargas can be admitted to the New York State Bar, he will be unable to practice law — and he will be lobbying for passage of the DREAM Act, which would create a pathway for undocumented immigrant children to establish legal residence.

For more information on Mr. Vargas’ story: