Hazards Line Road To The Bar For Unauthorized Immigrants

By Bruce Goldman | August 11, 2019, 9:42 PM EDT

Unauthorized immigrants who aspire to become lawyers must overcome a series of daunting obstacles because of their lack of legal status.

Even in states where such immigrants can secure a law license, reaching that milestone can mean financial gymnastics, fewer opportunities to burnish one’s resume and a patchwork of time-consuming train and bus trips to attend classes. [See related article, "How Unauthorized Immigrants Are Fighting To Practice Law."]

Financing college and law school is often the toughest challenge. Because participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and other immigrants living in the country without legal permission are ineligible for federal student aid, most have to rely on private scholarships, part-time work and other funding mechanisms.

Daniel Rodriguez, an immigration and family law attorney in Arizona, earned several scholarships but still had to pay out-of-state college tuition rates and couldn’t qualify for either state or federal aid. He later launched a fundraising website and hosted cafe events to help finance law school.

Sergio Garcia, whose scholarships to Stanford, Berkeley and two other California colleges were rescinded when his status was discovered, was handicapped by his ineligibility for a work permit.

“I was literally picking up cans in dumpsters, diving for cans, to make a buck,” said Garcia, now a personal injury attorney.

Beyond the financial hardships, the unauthorized status of some lawyer hopefuls precludes them from gaining experience by working for someone else first.

Rodriguez, who gained his green card in 2015, wasn’t eligible to apply for a clerkship with an immigration court due to his lack of citizenship papers.

“That impacted me when I did become an attorney because I found out that I didn’t have the network, the support and some of the knowledge that my peers did,” Rodriguez said.

The inability to acquire a driver’s license can also raise a host of difficulties.

Parthiv Patel, an associate at New Jersey firm Parker McCay who immigrated from India with his family at the age of 5, faced transportation difficulties for most of his undergraduate career.

One summer, in order to attend morning and evening classes at Rutgers University and an unpaid internship at another location in between, he had to walk four miles and take two train trips and two hourlong bus rides.

Like Patel, California’s Lizbeth Mateo spent long hours on buses during her college years, though eventually she was able to acquire a driver’s license.

But because the Mexican immigrant’s DACA application was rejected, she is unable to rent a car in another state. That limits her ability as an immigration attorney to visit detention centers outside of California.

Despite not being lawfully present in the country, Mateo made history last year when she was appointed to an advisory committee that helps low-income California students attend college, becoming the first immigrant without legal status in the U.S. to be appointed to a statewide position.

She hopes her story inspires other college students living in the U.S. without legal permission who want to pursue a career in law.

“I always tell people to think outside the box, to never take no for an answer, and they shouldn’t compromise with themselves ahead of time. You just go for it,” Mateo said. “There’s always a way. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s not going to be impossible.”

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--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.