The Undocumented Attorney, an Oxymoron for Our DREAMless Days

States grapple with whether or not to allow undocumented immigrants to practice law. Can the rest of the nation handle it?

By Julianne Hing Jun 07, 2012

Can an undocumented immigrant represent the law? That’s the question facing Florida and California as their state supreme courts take up the respective cases of Jose Godinez-Samperio and Sergio Garcia, two aspiring attorneys who happen to be undocumented.

Late last month the California Supreme Court unanimously decided that it would rule on Garcia’s case after the California State Bar asked the court to weigh in on his case. Garcia, who graduated from law school three years ago, joins Jose Godinez-Samperio, a 25-year-old Floridian who, like Garcia, graduated from law school and passed his state’s bar Exam, but is awaiting a decision from the Florida Supreme Court on the same matter.

Meanwhile, the country is grappling with the concept of an undocumented immigrant who’s seeking to become an attorney. The idea is too much for some people to handle. ""No one who has shown this guy’s level of contempt for American law should be practicing law," William Gheen, the president of anti-immigration PAC Americans for Legal Immigration, told the Sun Sentinel about Godinez-Samperio’s case.

An undocumented immigrant representing the law is at its very least a jarring image, a seeming oxymoron. The prevailing political discourse limits people’s imaginations about the types of jobs undocumented immigrants are and are not allowed to do. "Undocumented immigrants have been forced to live in the shadows and have faced a very deep kind of oppression that has blocked them from having some type of public identity," said Kent Wong, professor of labor and Asian-American studies at UCLA, and director of the UCLA Labor Center.

This new crop of cases is indicative of the generational shift in how the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented people are dealing with their statuses and Congress’ failure to pass meaningful immigration reform, Wong said. These days, nearly two years after the failure of the federal DREAM Act in 2010, undocumented youth are proclaiming their status boldly and publicly. No longer content to cower in the shadows, undocumented youth have announced at protests, civil disobedience actions and in the halls of statehouses their statuses. Many of those people, it turns out, are aspiring engineers and military members, nurses and attorneys.

Wong recalled a past student who graduated from UCLA’s law school and clerked by day at the Labor Center, but spent weekends hanging out in front of the local Home Depot waiting for work as a day laborer. "With the emergence of this new movement of immigrants proclaiming they are undocumented and unafraid and going public about their stories, their aspirations, their hopes and dreams, they challenge the notions of who the undocumented are," said Wong.

"The problem here is not with the fact that each profession has to have its own rules to be part of that profession. The problem here is that the immigration laws are broken," said David Campos, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. "Our immigration laws are disconnected from the reality of what our society needs and what our society wants."

While activists and advocates fight for those laws to be overhauled, life goes on. Campos, an Ivy League-educated attorney who immigrated to the U.S. as a child from Guatemala, pursued his college dreams despite being undocumented himself. While he didn’t have papers he patched together survival mechanisms to pursue his education and avoid drawing unwanted attention to himself, and to do basic things like travel and pay bills. An estimated 11 million people live in the U.S. in that gray space, negotiating the gap between the law and real life.

"[During that time] I don’t think I was hurting anyone," Campos said. "To the contrary my objective was to educate myself so I could give back to a country which has given me a lot."

It’s that very sentiment that Godinez-Samperio and Garcia have expressed in their own cases.

Still, at the legal heart of the cases is a question over whether states have the right to grant professional licenses to undocumented immigrants. After President Clinton signed 1996’s sweeping Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act into law, undocumented immigrants were barred from accessing federal grants, loans and professional licenses unless individual states approved those benefits. Should California and Florida authorize such a move, "the answer appears to be "yes" the states do have such authority if they choose to exercise it," said Geoffrey Hoffman, a professor of immigration law at the University of Houston.

The requirements for admission to Florida and California‘s state Bars offer no mention of immigration status. Aspiring attorneys must complete their legal education at accredited schools; pass each state’s bar exam; clear a background check and be considered to have decent "moral character." Godinez-Samperio and Garcia’s attorneys argue that both men clear those requirements easily, yet the California Supreme Court indicated that they are interested in knowing whether or not being undocumented constitutes a violation of the moral character requirement. A long line of mentors, former professors and supervisors have vouched for Godinez-Samperio. Godinez-Samperio, too, has the support of past presidents of the American Bar Association.

Their cases touch on difficult conversations the rest of the country is embroiled in. The court decision will carry important political significance.

"Recognizing that the undocumented can be lawyers, that they have been educated, and are just as capable as U.S. citizens, would go a long way in toppling pervasive prejudices about immigrants which continue to be great impediments for social change and justice," Hoffman said.

Briefs for Garcia’s case are due to the California Supreme Court on June 18. The California Supreme Court is also soliciting comment from the public on the issue.

"My message for those who are studying to be professionals one day is to keep going forward," Garcia told EFE. "Don’t despair, don’t get depressed, please never stop dreaming and don’t drop out of school."