Stuck in legal limbo, Dreamers fight to practice law

DACA recipients have now had just enough time to graduate from high school, get a bachelor's degree, and now, in some cases, a law degree. Those who have are positioning themselves for a fight to be able to practice law. 

Lauren Takores/Record-Journal/AP
Denia Perez, a student at Quinnipiac University School of Law, poses for a photo on May 3, 2018 in North Haven, Conn. Ms. Perez was brought to the US from Mexico as an infant. She testified before a Connecticut bar committee this month, three days after graduating with a law degree.

Denia Perez's parents brought her from Mexico to the United States illegally when she was 11. Last month, she became among the first of the so-called "Dreamers" to earn a law degree. And now, she and others are using their lawyerly know-how to take on the system so they can legally practice.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows young immigrants who entered the US before 2007 and before their 16th birthday to go to school under temporary renewable work permits, became law in 2012. That means the first beneficiaries have now had just enough time to graduate from high school, get a bachelor's degree, and now, in some cases, a law degree.

The problem: Most states require that practicing lawyers be US citizens or have legal residency status.

Relatively few "Dreamers" have completed law degrees, said Sheila Hayre, a visiting law professor at Quinnipiac University, from whose law school Ms. Perez graduated this month. Perez is the only one currently seeking admission to Connecticut's bar. But she and peers who are also getting law degrees are positioning themselves for a fight.

"It's just become normal for me to take all these things into consideration when I'm planning what to do with my life," said Perez, who plans to take the bar exam in July. "But part of me is frustrated and tired of having to jump though all these hoops to continue to live and contribute to this country."

She testified this month, three days after graduating, before a committee of the Connecticut bar, seeking a rule change that would allow her to practice law. Several other states, including California, Florida, New York, and New Jersey, have already passed laws or implemented similar rule changes to open their bars to DACA students.

And the American Bar Association, after hearing from DACA students seeking admission to the bar in several states, adopted a resolution in August that urges Congress to amend federal law, adding language that bar admission should never be denied based solely on immigration status.

"We have invested in these kids," Ms. Hayre said. "So it makes sense to have them contributing to the economy and society as productive members of the community. In a way, it's a no-brainer."

But there is opposition. Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow with the Heritage Foundation, said he finds it inconceivable that anyone who is not a legal resident could be permitted to take an oath to uphold the laws of the US and join the bar.

"They are in fact in the country illegally and violating federal law," said Mr. Spakovsky, who is a lawyer. "I wouldn't want someone who is in the country illegally to defend me, because the Department of Homeland Security could swoop in at any time and remove my lawyer from the country, and then where would I be?"

Perez has three younger brothers who were born in the US and are citizens. Her parents have green cards. She is the only member of the family who is not a legal resident.

The rule she wrote would allow admission to the bar for anyone "authorized to work lawfully in the United States." That would include those on DACA permits.

"I was very impressed with [Perez's] diligence, her intellect, and her commitment to not only her legal studies, but what she envisioned for herself in being helpful to people who are underserved in our community," said Anne Dranginis, a former state Appellate Court judge who now chairs the Connecticut Bar Examining committee. "It was a unanimous vote for us to say to the rules committee that we support this rules change."

Connecticut's proposed change will get another review in June at a meeting of state judges. If affirmed, it could go into effect as early as July, Hayre said, noting that in most states the process has been adversarial and taken several years.

But in Connecticut, so far there has been no public opposition. Perez's proposal was first presented to judicial officials in January. It is supported by the deans of law schools at Quinnipiac, Yale University, the University of Connecticut, and the Connecticut Bar Association

Perez, who grew up in northern California and has a degree from San Francisco State University in women's and gender studies, also plans to apply to the bar in New York. She is beginning a two-year fellowship with an organization called Make The Road New York, working with people facing deportation.

She said she feels it's her responsibility to expand on the work other DACA students have done securing privileges in Connecticut, such as in-state tuition. This year, they successfully lobbied lawmakers for access to public financial aid.

Other DACA students have also tried to change educational policies, with varying degrees of success.

Thomas Kim, a DACA student who pushed for the American Bar Association resolution before graduating with honors from Arizona State University's law school this spring, said he's still waiting for confirmation from Oregon's bar that there will no problem with his admission there, should he pass the bar exam in July.

Mr. Kim chairs the American Bar Association's law student division and said the group plans to wait until Congress deals with the larger issue of renewing DACA before pushing for a national policy on law students.

"I think we will have to wait until the political climate transforms and changes completely," he said, "so perhaps until the next presidential election, that's my personal feeling."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Stuck in legal limbo, Dreamers fight to practice law
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today