Tyler Roberts 2017-11-08 05:56:14
Dreaming of law For some undocumented immigrants, a law license is out of reach. However, an ABA resolution could change that. Thomas Kim wants to practice law in Oregon, but his status as an undocumented immigrant will bar him from admission to the state bar, even though he expects to graduate this spring from The Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, A recent resolution, championed by Kim and passed by the American Bar Association (ABA), may soon change that. The ABA approved a resolution recommending that state courts with authority to regulate bar admissions admit undocumented law school graduates seeking legal status. “This resolution on which my team and I worked diligently lets undocumented students, as well as documented students, know that America is still a land of opportunity,” Kim said. “Passing of this resolution reminds me that I can continue to make substantive, positive impact in my community and in this country.” Kim was 12 when his family immigrated from South Korea. They settled in Portland, Ore., and quickly applied for green cards. But his family’s application for permanent residency was denied because of negligence by their attorney. After a six-year wait, the family was in the lurch. “At first, I was bitter and angry,” said Kim, who had a full-tuition merit scholarship at Pacific Lutheran University and was the first in his family to go to college. “But I realized there needs to be someone who can help families in situations like mine, who can help and are effective at what they do, and who can sympathize with the situation we are in.” That’s when Kim set his sights on being a lawyer to help other immigrant families. Ineligible for student loans, Kim worked his way through undergrad and received a full-tuition scholarship to Arizona State University, where he is a third-year student. “I didn’t know how I could become an attorney, but I had no other option. It is what I was made to do,” Kim said. “If there were going to be roadblocks, I wanted to make the changes as I go. I knew it was going to be difficult because there are no guidelines.” Not all ABA delegates supported Kim’s resolution. Jack Long of the State Bar of Georgia argued that undocumented immigrants are in violation of the law. Long also expressed concern that law graduates with undocumented status are barred from certain employment opportunities. “How can we, as lawyers tasked with upholding the law, advocate for admission to our state bars those who are in open and notorious violation of it,” Long said. Long is not alone in his criticism. “You’re taking the oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, while you are simultaneously breaking those laws,” John C. Eastman, a constitutional law expert and former dean of Chapman University Fowler School of Law, told The New York Times. “You’re violating the oath of office from the moment you take it. That’s a real problem.” The issue of whether undocumented lawyers can vow to uphold the law while in violation of it is not lost on University of Houston Law Center student Karla Perez Ramirez. But she believes many of the arguments are missing the point. “Think of what people like me can bring to the legal community,” she said. “We have a particular experience that can be used to serve underrepresented communities.” Perez was born in Mexico City and came to the U.S. in 1995 when she was 3 years old. Since she was a child, she has dreamed of becoming a civil rights attorney. When Perez learned she was undocumented, she knew that her path to the practice of law would be filled with stumbling blocks. Then in 2012, after her first year of college, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, was approved by executive action. It allowed her to remain in the U.S. legally and apply for a work permit. Like Kim, Perez is ineligible for student loans, but she said DACA status gave her the confidence to pursue her career aspirations. Though she is cautious about speculating whether Texas will admit her to the bar after graduation, Perez is grateful that the ABA passed a resolution aimed at helping law graduates nationwide. “I was very happy. This is a step in the right direction,” Perez said. “It is also very encouraging to me and other DACA students to feel supported by the largest legal organization in the country.” The issue of Dreamers (undocumented immigrants who have lived in the U.S. since childhood) entering the legal profession directly affects many people’s lives, said John Weber, an ABA Law Student Division delegate from Kentucky. He said the resolution sends a strong message that the ABA supports immigrants who have significant potential as lawyers. “All that we ask is that this will allow students, who are otherwise qualified, to be admitted to the bar in the state and the country that is their home,” Weber said. California was the first to admit undocumented immigrants to its state bar. Following a decision from the Supreme Court of California in 2013, the California State Legislature modified its laws to allow undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors to obtain law licenses. Sergio Garcia was the subject of that case. “Immigration status does not make someone less qualified to be a lawyer,” Garcia said. When Garcia applied to Cal Northern School of Law, he did not think his immigration status would be a barrier to his legal career. But the state began asking for applicants’ immigration status in 2008. Garcia was one of the first undocumented immigrants to list his citizenship status. After being admitted to the bar, Garcia opened a solo practice in his hometown of Chico, Calif. He received his green card one year after he was admitted to the bar. “I want to believe that my case and that of other undocumented attorneys doing good work proves that we are just like anyone else who wants to improve the lives of their families and their communities,” he said. Seven states in addition to California admit undocumented immigrants to their state bars. The ABA resolution will serve as a guideline for other states. “I want people like Mr. Kim practicing and working from the inside to make a difference and have us carefully consider these important questions about immigration and about the right to practice in our profession,” said Andrew Schpak, president of the Multnomah Bar Association in Oregon, where Kim hopes to practice.
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