In high school, Cesar Vargas didn’t have a driver’s license. His friends thought it was odd, but he’d brush off their comments, saying he didn’t want one or would get it later.
A few years later, his college registrar’s office started asking to see him. Apparently they’d spelled his name wrong on his forms, and all they needed was his social security number to clear it up. But Vargas didn’t have that either. So he deleted their emails and waited for the whole incident to go away. Eventually, the dean set up a meeting. And for the first time, Vargas admitted to someone outside his circle of close friends that he didn’t have legal immigration status.
He was in his last year of law school when he told the world—advocating for the Dream Act on the Senate floor.
Throughout school Vargas demonstrated what attorneys at his hearing for admission to the New York State Bar would later call “stellar character.” He graduated from City University of New York law school at the top of his class and passed the bar exam on his first try. He had all the makings of a lawyer, except legal status.
The final step on the path to becoming a lawyer is a character and fitness evaluation and interview to address any criminal history or other issues that might affect someone’s ability to practice law. Vargas’ interview lasted over three hours, he says. Unable to make a decision about the all-caps “UNDOCUMENTED” on Vargas’ application, the committee set up a more extensive hearing. They brought in witnesses, read letters from elected officials, and delved into his background. Still at a loss, they passed his case on to the state courts.
What resulted not only shaped Vargas’ career, but also served as a test case in New York state and potentially as an example for other states. Three years after Vargas first applied to the bar, the State Supreme Court ruled that his undocumented status alone should not prevent him from becoming a lawyer and that there’s “no legal impediment or rational basis for withholding the privilege of practicing law” from those protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, as he was.
The decision opened the door for undocumented immigrants—including Vargas—to be admitted to the New York State Bar. He was the first to be approved by the judiciary and one of the first to be sworn in.
“My most significant moment,” Vargas says, “was the actual day that I was admitted in a beautiful courtroom, where I raised my hand, got sworn in, and became an attorney.”
That day, in February 2016, Vargas turned to his mother. “Mom, your son is now a lawyer,” he stated proudly to the woman who’d taken her sons across the U.S.-Mexico border when Vargas was five to give them the chance, one day, to achieve this title.
“You were always my lawyer,” she replied.
Vargas’ story shapes the work he does. By the time he was sworn in, he was working as the National Latino Outreach Strategist for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. As a practicing lawyer in Staten Island, NY, he now represents children facing deportation—specifically refugees and children escaping violence—as well as military families and veterans who’ve been deported. He founded and runs the Dream Action Coalition, which supports and advocates for immigrants in the U.S. The coalition works with elected officials—both Republicans and Democrats—to push for a path to citizenship for Dreamers. Vargas created a soccer league called “The Tournament of Dreams,” which brings together NYPD officers and the immigrant community. He’s also frequently featured as a guest speaker in national media.
Vargas was a first for New York, but he’s also the first attorney in his family. “When we were little my mom always used to say: ‘En la familia tenemos que tener un doctor y un abogado.’ ‘In our family we always need to have a doctor and a lawyer.’ A doctor to take care of the health of the family, and a lawyer to defend the family.”
He took this to heart. Becoming a lawyer not only helped Vargas better understand his own status, but also gave him the tools to defend the people he loves and cares for most. And this extends beyond his immediate family. Seeing how vulnerable immigrants around him are to fraud and exploitation, he wanted to stand by them when others couldn’t.
“And I guess that’s what my mom meant, he says. “That’s why you should be a lawyer: to defend the community that is also supporting you along the way.”
The First Actionable Step He Took
I think it was publicly coming out about my story. I could have easily just stayed under the radar. When I graduated, someone offered me a paralegal job, and it was really tempting because I had probably $1,500 in my bank account, and I was like maybe I should just take this to pay the bills and wait until something happens, wait until congress passes immigration reform—just wait and let other people do the work.
But telling my story was my defining moment to say, “I’m going to take the first steps to ensure I can become an attorney.” And not thinking that I would be the first, but that I would do my part to ensure that immigration status would not be a barrier to practicing law.
The Biggest Challenge He Faced
For so long, there were scores of times when I thought, “I did all this, for what?” I went through three torturous years of being in law school and then months of tormenting studying for the bar exam, ultimately to be told that “we don’t care that you did all that, it doesn’t matter.” I had done everything that was required of me but that didn’t count because of my immigration status.
Advice He’d Give Another First
I believe that great things throughout history are made possible by a movement. It’s not just Cesar Vargas or one man or one woman—it takes a movement to create significant change. And [my story] was no exception. This was made possible by amazing mentors and attorneys, my mom who always encouraged me, and people who wrote letters of support.
The most important thing is that you are not alone. It may feel like you’re fighting this battle alone, but you’ll have amazing people who have your back. Don’t forget that your story is very powerful and keep telling people why you’re doing this.