California may become the first state in U.S. history to allow undocumented immigrants to practice law after passing the state bar exam.
Gov. Jerry Brown has until Oct. 13 to sign AB 1024, a bill that would grant undocumented individuals licenses to become lawyers regardless of their immigration status.
“This is the only country that they have known as their own, and until the federal government passes comprehensive immigration reform, it is something we have to do to ensure dreamers can have normal lives,” said Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who introduced the bill.
The bill was introduced after the Supreme Court of California in 2011 ruled to withhold the law license of Sergio Covarrubias Garcia, an undocumented immigrant, after the state bar that approved his license disclosed his legal status.
But it was not until Sept. 4 of this year that the state Supreme Court heard oral arguments from both sides of Garcia’s case. The court decided that while it is against federal law to issue professional licenses to undocumented immigrants, the law allows room for state legislatures to grant professional licenses to undocumented immigrants through state legislation.
Garcia’s case has not existed in a vacuum. Similar cases have appeared across the country involving undocumented immigrants; Jose Manuel Godinez-Samperio in Florida and Cesar Vargas in New York faced difficulty obtaining their licenses to practice law. Earlier this year, Godinez-Samperio’s case was dismissed, leaving him without a license.
Because of these struggles, Vargas has decided to help create the DREAM Bar Association, a group that supports and provides resources for other undocumented law students nationwide.
Despite the hanging threat of deportation, these students have chosen to voice their experiences in pursuing a law career. Vargas’ group has already recruited about 30 members, who often work together to write briefs for one another about reasons they should qualify for law licenses.
“We cannot stand in the shadow — I have seen other DREAMers fighting for others, and I think those people inspired me to take action and do my part and push for immigration reform and have DREAMers admitted (into college),” Vargas said. “The more people know about your story, the more people understand that it is a personal issue. My goal is to push the conversation forward.”
Gonzalez, who earned her own law degree from UCLA School of Law, chose to push for the bill just before the legislative recess in mid-September. She said it was important to support the students who have worked hard to earn their degrees.
“I’m not any better, I didn’t study any more and there is a lack of equity that doesn’t allow these DREAMers who worked hard and did everything right to pursue what they want, and it just doesn’t seem right,” Gonzalez said.
It is unclear how many undocumented students are studying law in the UC system, but Gonzalez estimates there are 15 systemwide. The figure does not take into account students who did not want to identify as undocumented, undergraduates thinking about pursuing a law degree or law school graduates.
Leti Volpp, a law professor at UC Berkeley School of Law, said she wouldn’t be surprised if more undocumented students see law school as a viable option if the bill passes.
Volpp also said AB 1024 is another small step toward seeing undocumented immigrants as part of “our community.” The students who are able to pass the bar exam should not be excluded due to their legal status but should be praised for their accomplishment, she said.
“Half of the applicants to the California state bar get rejected every year,” Volpp said. “Legal status is the least important question on whether or not someone should be allowed to practice law.”