New York Court Rules Child Of Illegal Immigrants Can Be Admitted To Practice Law

The highest court in New York state has ruled that an undocumented immigrant brought to the U.S. as a child can be admitted to practice law.


A New York court has ruled that an undocumented immigrant who came to the United States with his parents when he was a minor can be admitted to the bar:

His legal fight just to become a lawyer lasted three years. On Wednesday, Cesar Vargas, a Mexican-born 31-year-old New Yorker, became the first unauthorized immigrant in the state to be approved to work as a lawyer after the State Supreme Court’s Second Department of the Appellate Division granted his application to the bar.

In overturning a 2013 decision by a committee appointed by the State Supreme Court that had denied his application based on his immigration status — but had asked the court to rule — the state judiciary did what the Legislature in Albany has not been able to do: establish at least a modicum of immigration reform.

The decision could be a test case, not only for the city, but also the country, affecting hundreds of would-be lawyers and empowering immigrants who arrived as children to the United States and have been granted a reprieve from deportation.

“This wasn’t just about one person; this was about countless other students across New York State and across the country,” Mr. Vargas said on Wednesday night. “This is a precedent I wanted to make. I think this is really great momentum that is going to extend to other policies.”

Mr. Vargas, who has been granted the deferred action allowing him to work, is the third unauthorized immigrant lawyer to become eligible to practice law after court decisions in California and Florida in 2014.

But in both of those states, the legislatures have also enacted laws paving the way for the licensing of unauthorized immigrants.

In Albany, a bill to allow unauthorized immigrants to practice law died last year.

In its opinion, the court wrote that it found “no legal impediment or rational basis for withholding the privilege of practicing law in the State of New York from undocumented immigrants who have been granted DACA relief,” the five-member appellate division said in its opinion, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

“We find that Mr. Vargas’ undocumented immigration status, in and of itself, does not reflect adversely upon his general fitness to practice law,” the opinion said, adding, “Mr. Vargas did not enter the United States in violation of the immigration laws of his own volition, but rather, came to the United States at the age of 5 at the hand of his mother.”


[T]here was a bit of doubt, even amid the celebration on Wednesday night. Mr. Vargas was in court in Des Moines, where he was defending himself against charges of trespassing after he was arrested when he protested speeches by several elected officials, including Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. The event, Mr. Vargas said, was “quasi-public.”

Mr. Vargas said he had no regrets about attending the conference, and was confident it would not jeopardize his bar application. Mr. Vargas said in an interview on Wednesday night that the appellate division was well aware of what happened: He had already submitted updates on the arrest and a pending court appearance. He hopes to hear that result on Thursday afternoon.

“In the end, if you are really going to be an advocate, you can’t hide and you can’t just wait in the shadows,” he said.

After graduating from City University of New York Law School, Mr. Vargas passed the New York State bar in 2011. He has interned with a State Supreme Court judge, at the Brooklyn district attorney’s office and with a United States congressman. He first submitted an application to the bar in 2012.You

Since then, unable to practice law, he has turned to advocacy, becoming a national leader in the immigration reform movement.

This isn’t the first case of an undocumented immigrant being granted admission to the bar. The most recent case before this is that of Sergio Garcia, a resident of California who was brought to the United States as a child just like Mr. Vargas. Last year, the California Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Garcia could be admitted to the state bar after he had been through a similar legal battle. The difference in that case is that it doesn’t appear that Garcia was covered under President Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which granted temporary legal status to certain individuals who were brought to U.S. when they were minors. Because of that, at least at the time that he was admitted last year it was unclear that Garcia would actually be able to work legally even though he was admitted to practice law in California. That isn’t a problem for Vargas since he’s covered by DACA which, in addition to giving him temporary relief from deportation also gives him temporary legal work status. As long as that continues, he’ll be able to practice law.

Some might object to the idea of someone who is, basically an illegal immigrant being allowed to practice law, but I really don’t see a problem here. Vargas didn’t come to the United States illegally by his own choice, he came here illegally because his parents brought him here. Like many in his position, he was raised in the United States, went to American schools, had American friends, and basically is as much an American culturally as any of us. Punishing him for something his parents did doesn’t seem fair, and there doesn’t seem to me to be anything about his immigration status that makes him per se ineligible to practice law in the United States. Ideally, of course, he would be in legal status and this wouldn’t be an issue, but that’s just another argument in favor of immigration reforms that includes means for people in his position to get themselves into legal status.

So, welcome to the legal profession Mr. Vargas. Soon you’ll be as cynical burned out as everyone else.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Law and the Courts, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. gVOR08 says:

    Is there any requirement that one must be a U. S. citizen to practice law in NY? If so, that would presumably have been the end of it. If not, why is this even a question?

  2. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    So he can practice law. Can he charge for it? Seems to be that any of his prospective clients would be guilty of knowingly hiring an illegal alien.

    And there’s a nice bit of Orwellian language there — “Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA).” “Deferred” has a specific meaning, but does anyone really believe that the action will ever actually happen?

    And I can go along with giving Mr. Vargas a pass. However, his parents should be punished, because they not only willingly broke the law, but they exposed a child to the risk as well. Give the kids a pass, but ratchet up the punishment for the parents.

  3. @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Did you not read the part where it said that he is covered by DACA, which means he has permission to work in the United States?

  4. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I missed that; I was thrown off by the Orwellian “Deferred” part. Sorry, and thanks.

    But since the action is only “deferred” (taking Obama at his word that the action is only delayed, not canceled outright), would it be a wise choice to hire someone whose status could be changed at any moment? Or are we just all pretending that Obama’s not lying on this pledge, like he has on so many other cases?

  5. @Jenos Idanian #13:


    No, an accurate description of the program

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Or are we just all pretending that Obama’s not lying on this pledge,

    Heh. The only way Obama is lying is if we don’t get immigration reform and that is only possible if the jingoistic right gets their way. But that will be Obama’s fault too.

  7. @Jenos Idanian #13:

    You’ve just made an excellent and persuasive case for passage of comprehensive immigration reform roughly along the lines of the Senate bill that was passed in June 2013. Now, get to work on persuading your Republican friends in Congress to do something about that.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    Off topic, but similar issue. Driver’s licenses are supposed to enhance safety by enforcing that a driver once knew some smattering of the applicable laws and once presented proof of insurance. Are those not desirable goals? Why do we want to have people driving without training and insurance so we can use licenses to also enforce immigration?

  9. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Doug Mataconis: You’ve just made an excellent and persuasive case for passage of comprehensive immigration reform roughly along the lines of the Senate bill that was passed in June 2013.

    You mean this particular bill? I’ll pass, thanks.

  10. Rafer Janders says:


    Is there any requirement that one must be a U. S. citizen to practice law in NY?


  11. ernieyeball says:

    …but ratchet up the punishment for the parents.

    Republican family values.

  12. grumpy realist says:

    @gVOR08: Nope nope nope.

  13. grumpy realist says:

    We really need to improve our whole immigration system. I saw the total mess it’s in via watching friends of mine get shoved through the Kafkaesque meat-grinder we call Teh Application Process.

    Also, what are we supposed to do about small kids who get dragged over the border and brought up in the US?

  14. ernieyeball says:

    @grumpy realist:..Also, what are we supposed to do about small kids who get dragged over the border and brought up in the US?

    Punish their parents with a ratchet for wanting their kids to have a better life.
    Republican #13 thinks it’s a great idea!

  15. James Pearce says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    I’ll pass, thanks.

    That’s the problem, Jenos. Your preferred bill won’t pass.

    So your choice is this: Find some compromise you can live with, wherein you don’t get everything, but you get something..

    Or get nothing.

  16. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    @grumpy realist: I was always very partial to this infographic

  17. David M says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    So, I looked at the objections to the bill, and they appear as follows:

    1. It actually does something about the undocumented immigrants already here.
    2. Securing the border is hard and costs money
    3. The government might spend money
    4. The government might spend money
    5. The government might need employees to implement immigration reform
    6. Legislating is hard
    7. The bill isn’t perfect
    8. We don’t like the constitution
    9. Legislating is hard
    10. The bill isn’t perfect

    So their concerns are: that it might do actually something to reform immigration, that the government might spend money and hire employees to reform immigration, random complaints about our system of government and sadness this bill isn’t perfect.

    It’s not remotely convincing.

  18. stonetools says:

    @David M:

    You forgot the biggest one- we might have to raise taxes in order to pay for the bill. That makes the bill DOA for Republicans, always and forever, because to talk about raising taxes to pay for things means leaving the alternate universe where Republicans live, and facing current reality.

  19. the Q says:

    So where do we draw the line on this illegal immigrant stuff?

    Just askin…. Do we say that since your parents brought you here illegally you should jump to the head of the immigration line in front of people from Asia or Europe or Latin America who have waited quite literally 20 years to emigrate? Who have spent tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees patiently trying to get in to the US legally? Those who follow the rules? For example, Pashtun translators helping the US forces in Afghanistan apply for citzenship, only to be turned down by ICE, then they have to watch their families murdered in retribution (google the news stories). How do I tell them, “hey, just catch a flight to Mexico City, pretend you’re Mexican, wade across the Rio Grande, evade arrest, and voila, a wonderful world awaits you, free from violence as you get your fake IDs and Drivers licenses.”

    Look the wingnuts are racists, hence their bizarre, out of date policies. I get that. Brown skin people are just not wanted for RACIAL reasons.

    So whats with the Dems lunacy on this issue? Its almost as stupid.

    Lets give Mexico 5 million green cards a year and set the citzenship quota’s from Mexico to 500,000 a year so we can stop this farce. At least they would be legal and out of the shadows and regulated to a certain extent and don’t have to worry about arrest and deportation.

    This ad hoc “feel good, lets give a worthless attorney legal status” begs the question of fairness to those with other superior skills like nurses and doctors.

    Anyone defending this sick, twisted system?

  20. ernieyeball says:

    So where do we draw the line on this illegal immigrant stuff?

    I dunno Q. Where do we? U asked the question and then went on a rant that did not include one realistic or reasonable policy suggestion.
    As far as sick and twisted is concerned U might want to look in a mirror.

  21. the Q says:

    OK ernie, whats your plan? Just let anyone come over the border? No regulation or deport them all?

    I told you idiot what options there are. We should legalize by giving 2 million green cards and open up legal immigration from Latin America by vastly increaing quotas to 3 million a year so that we can track and have some regulation of who is here.

    Or seal the border and stop the nonsense, The Senate bill is a good start.

    I am an old New Deal Democrat and the low income middle class workers are being destroyed by the influx here in California.

    Go back to taking pictures of your food worthless boomer.

  22. ernieyeball says:

    @the Q:..Here’s a meal for ya Q. Better go get it before it cooks in the sun!