An undocumented immigrant who has lived in the U.S. most of his life was approved for a law license in New York State on Wednesday, setting a precedent that could allow other undocumented immigrants to practice law in the state and possibly elsewhere in the nation.
Cesar Vargas, 31, a Mexican immigrant who graduated from the City University of New York Law School, first applied for a license in 2012. But even though he passed the bar exam on his first try, he's been blocked from practicing law until now because of his immigration status.
Born in the Mexican state of Puebla, Vargas was taken across the border at age five by his family. He's covered under President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which defers deportation for young undocumented immigrants and gives them the right to work. His approval to practice law made headlines in his home country.
A five-judge appellate court panel that considered Vargas' case found that a federal law banning states from awarding professional licenses to undocumented immigrants doesn't necessarily apply to DREAMers covered by DACA. There is no "legal impediment or rational basis" for denying these immigrants the right to practice law if they meet all necessary requirements, the panel wrote.
In 2013, a subcommittee reported that Vargas "appears to have stellar character" and found that it "would have no hesitation in recommending" him for admittance, except for his immigration status.
While California and Florida have both passed laws allowing undocumented immigrants to practice law, New York appears to be the first state in which courts have admitted an undocumented bar applicant without legislative action, according to the New York Law Journal—a decision that could set a national precedent.
“This is a case of national importance,” Jose Perez, associate general counsel at legal group LatinoJustice, which represented Vargas, told Fusion. "It’s been 2.5 years waiting for this moment. I think Cesar was getting impatient, frustrated, wondering why is this taking so long… Now, he's overjoyed."
While the decision only applies to law licenses, Perez said it could be a first step toward awarding undocumented immigrants other professional licenses in fields like medicine or engineering.
Vargas reacted to the decision in a tweet:
Vargas is also an immigration activist: he and another DREAMer were arrested by police in Iowa in January after asking Republican presidential candidates questions about immigration policy at a forum hosted by conservative Congressman Steve King (R-Ia.).
We've reached out to Vargas and will update if we hear back from him.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.