Portrait by AnRong Xu
This story appeared in the November issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.
This year, Cesar Vargas became New York State’s first openly undocumented lawyer. After a four-year fight in the courts, a five-judge panel found "no rational basis" for prohibiting Vargas from practicing law based on his immigration status alone, defying a federal rule that bans states from issuing professional licenses to "aliens" unless they make specific legislative exceptions. A Brooklyn native since age 5, when he crossed into the US with his family from Mexico, Vargas didn’t wait around on the court’s decision: He has traveled all over the US organizing for immigration reform, and his group, the Dream Action Coalition, has confronted politicians on both sides of the aisle. He also joined the Bernie Sanders campaign as a national Latino outreach coordinator during the primaries.
Multiple immigration-reform bills have failed in Congress, and a tie in the Supreme Court blocked President Obama’s executive actions to shield as many as 5 million unauthorized immigrants from deportation and allow them to work.
The US solicitor general requested a rehearing on immigration for the session that began this past October, but the justices are still short a member—the case will have to wait.
VICE: Were you ever tempted to hide your immigration status to get your law license?
Cesar Vargas: Plenty of people told me that I might be able to slip under the radar, lie on my application, and get admitted, but I didn’t want to go back into the shadows. I had already publicly come out as undocumented in 2010, and I felt that being untruthful would be admitting I was afraid. In the bar-admissions application where it asked for immigration status, I wrote in all capital letters: "UNDOCUMENTED." But then there was the waiting… There were moments when I thought I may not become a lawyer, but so many incredible people stood by my side to fight it out.
What was at stake for you?
I have seen the need our community has for someone who understands the system and can help explain it. So many clients are in need of an attorney who knows where they are coming from and won’t take advantage of them. And through the state court, we established that New York has the power to regulate its professionals—and that can include the undocumented.
But does it feel incremental to fight for immigration reform state by state?
Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis was the one who said states are the laboratories for democracy. The reality is that the states will always take the lead when the federal government can’t take action.
What about states like Texas, which led the lawsuit against Obama’s executive actions on immigration?
That’s the thing. When the issue becomes politicized you start seeing states like Arizona enacting laws like SB1070, which effectively let the police stop anyone for papers for any "reasonable suspicion," which basically means the color of your skin. But Texas was actually the first state to allow financial aid to undocumented students. As an advocate, I would love to see broad relief for immigrants, but the reality is, when we are discussing immediate action, it’s not just the Republicans who politicize and stymie the issue—it’s also the Democrats. The most deportations have taken place under Obama. It’s easy to challenge your political opponents, but it’s much more difficult to challenge your allies.
How have you pushed back on both parties?
Many people told us Dreamers [who benefitted from the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act]: "Don’t go after Obama, go after the Republicans, they’re the real enemies." I remember being in DC for the battle with Congress over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. We won the House but lost the Senate, so afterward we pushed hard to make sure the president took executive action.
And then we started getting disinvited to White House events. When you get invited to the parties, it’s because you pose no threat. But when you are disinvited, you are seen as a troublemaker—for me that’s actually an honor. It means I am a political force and I can confront power. It’s not always good to be on the grateful side of your allies.
There are videos online of you confronting congressmen, like Steve King from Iowa.
Yeah, and I was arrested in the same state at [a candidate forum] for protesting Chris Christie and Donald Trump. I was found guilty of trespassing and that actually delayed my bar admission for an extra year. They said we were resisting, but there is video that shows the opposite. I remember the police officer said, "Someone just told us we need to arrest you." We were like, "Why?" We had already left the rally. But, it was in Iowa, so…
Did this troublemaking in the name of political discourse fit into your work for Bernie Sanders as an outreach strategist?
Joining the campaign was a logical extension of what we were already doing. His whole campaign was dedicated to confronting the status quo, confronting the Establishment. Sanders said, "OK, go draft our immigration policy." They gave us all the leeway, and we drafted a wish list of everything we wanted to see.
This is what you would want immigration reform to look like if it went all the way?
Exactly. Democracy is slow, but there is a lot at stake here. Immigration is what happens when families are desperate for a better life, and it requires immense sacrifice. That resiliency and courage is bigger than Democrats versus Republicans. It shouldn’t just boil down to who is in power next.