César Vargas, the first undocumented lawyer to be admitted to the New York State Bar, spoke at Cornell Law School Wednesday about his journey as an immigrants’ rights advocate and his role in drafting Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (D-Vt.) immigration policy platform.
Vargas, the Latino Outreach Strategist for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, said that his status as “a dreamer” — a term derived from the DREAM act for undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as young children — greatly impacted the trajectory of his career and life.
After Vargas made it through college, he said he applied to law schools and received rejections solely due to his immigration status.
“I remember one school sent me a letter saying ‘you need to show social security,’” Vargas said. He added that when he told them he did not have a social security number, the university replied that they could not accept him. Furthermore, he said securing the funds to attend law school posed a significant challenge.
Vargas said that he was able to overcome these challenges by sharing his story with his CUNY law school dean, who then helped him obtain private scholarships.
“That’s why I always tell dreamers: ‘tell your story,’” he said. “There are so many people out there who are willing to support you. You just need to let them know.”
Vargas also said sharing his story became a powerful tool in mobilizing people around immigration reform.
“I remember when I came out to my friends in law school as undocumented, they told me ‘Now I understand immigration from a different perspective. Now I see what it means to practice immigration law’” Vargas said.
He continued that humanizing people has been crucial to his work as an immigration reform advocate.
“One of the central components of fixing this broken immigration system is seeing people as people,” he said.
After graduating from law school and passing the bar exam, Vargas said he faced yet another roadblock when he sought admission to the New York State Bar. Although Vargas explained that, having passed the bar, he could have “flown under the radar” and been given a license to practice law without mentioning that he was undocumented, he wanted to confront the issue of being an undocumented person who wanted to be admitted to the bar.
“I spent almost four years waiting to become a licensed lawyer,” Vargas said, alluding to the four year legal battle for certification that followed his graduation.
Although Vargas said he initially regretted his decision to place himself in such a situation, the regret disappeared when he was finally granted the ability to practice.
“The court’s decision was beautiful,” he said, “It said that regardless of where you come from, you can be a lawyer. You can be a professional.”
Vargas said that he counts the court’s decisions as one of his biggest achievements.
“The decision showed me that you might need a license to practice law and appear before a judge, but you don’t need a license to advocate for your community,” he said.
His position in the Sanders campaign ties in closely with his previous experience of mobilizing to advocate for immigrant rights, according to Vargas.
“To me this campaign is all about challenging the establishment and challenging the status quo of ‘no, this can’t be done,’” he said. “For me, the Bernie campaign is all about coming together and pushing boundaries in order to get real change.”