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Immigration Law

Iowa Probation Blocks Immigrant's Historic Law License

"Cesar Adrian Vargas made history this month when a New York court paved the way for him to become the first undocumented immigrant to practice law in the state.

But the Mexican-born activist's arrest at a Des Moines political event earlier this year has put that achievement in jeopardy — at least for now.

A Polk County jury this month convicted Vargas, 31, and fellow activist Marco Malagon of Texas of trespassing for disrupting speeches by potential Republican presidential candidates at U.S. Rep. Steve King's Iowa Freedom Summit in January.

In an auditorium filled with 1,500 Republicans, Vargas interrupted New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with a question on whether he would support deporting the activist's 70-year-old undocumented mother.

Vargas was arrested after leaving the privately owned Hoyt-Sherman Place in Des Moines.

"I simply went, as the American that I feel I am, to ask my potential president a question that matters to my family," he said.

His act of civil disobedience earned Vargas a simple misdemeanor conviction and one year of probation.

But it also has temporarily derailed his bid to become a practicing lawyer, because New York policy disapproves of granting law licenses to somebody still on probation.

Vargas' Des Moines attorney asked a judge last week to release him early from his Iowa probation, in part so that his application to practice law can proceed before a New York committee that screens new lawyers for character and fitness.

The move drew objections from Assistant Polk County Attorney Linda Lane, who argued that the activist hasn't proven that his short time on probation "rehabilitated" him.

Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, a Democrat, said Vargas should have known he could face penalties for disrupting Christie's speech on private property.

“When you decide to engage in civil disobedience, there are consequences to that.”

"When you decide to engage in civil disobedience, there are consequences to that," he said. "I assume he weighed all his options before he did what he did."

Supporters of Vargas' cause say that argument borders on silly for a crime that follows the tradition of peaceful protestemployed by leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

"It's somebody who's directly impacted by the decisions of the next president trying to ask a question about something that will affect him and his family," said Iowan Matt Hildreth, a digital director for the advocacy group America's Voice. "The fact that they're trying to grasp at straws and say he needs to be 'rehabilitated,' it's embarrassing, to be honest with you."

Vargas came from Mexico to the United States with his mother and siblings when he was 5. After high school, he graduated from college, before going on to the City University of New York School of Law.

He interned in the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office and clerked for a New York state Supreme Court justice.

Vargas still hopes to practice criminal and immigration law while continuing his work with an immigration policy advocacy group he co-founded, he said.

“This is exactly the type of person that should be admitted to the bar and practicing law.”

"Clearly he's socially conscious, and he cares about his community," said Rob Barron, a Des Moines school board member and founder of the nonpartisan Latino Political Network. "This is exactly the type of person that should be admitted to the bar and practicing law."

Vargas applied to be admitted to the New York bar in 2012 after passing the bar exam. He disclosed his status as an undocumented immigrant in his application.

Twelve members of Congress and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., signed letters supporting his application, the result of Vargas' advocacy for passage of the DREAM Act, a proposal providing legal residency for undocumented immigrants who as young children came to America alongside their parents.

"When I applied, I knew we were pushing the boundaries of the law," Vargas told The Des Moines Register, "because above all we need to make sure we are pushing the boundaries of the law to push our communities, and not just accept that the laws are stagnant."

In February 2013, Vargas got the federal government's authorization to live and work in the U.S. under President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The executive action has allowed hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to America as children to avoid deportation and obtain work permits.

Months later, though, members of a New York committee on character and fitness decided that Vargas' immigration status would still prevent him from becoming a lawyer until an appellate court had a chance to review the issue.

The historic ruling from the New York court came on June 3, the first day of the Des Moines trespassing trial for Vargas and Malagon. Vargas said he could barely contain his excitement while sitting in the Polk County Courthouse.

"It was like I was in shock," he said.

With the ruling, Vargas became one of three undocumented immigrants nationwide able to practice law after taking their arguments to court, according to the New York Times.

Vargas had a choice when the Des Moines jury returned its "guilty" verdict: A $100 fine or a deferred judgment with a one-year probation period that would erase the conviction from his record if he finished it successfully. He chose the deferred judgment and probation.

He had to make the choice shortly after the verdict because he did not want to travel back to Iowa from New York City a second time for a sentencing hearing, according to Glen Downey, his attorney.

In a motion filed last week, Downey asked District Judge Carol Coppola to let Vargas off of probation or resentence him to the original fine.

Under Iowa law, any defendant can ask to be released from probation if he or she completes all the necessary requirements, Downey wrote in the motion.

Vargas is considered a low risk to reoffend, and he completed the only requirements of his probation by paying a fee and sitting for a short interview, Downey said. He doesn't have to report to a probation officer or attend classes, making it essentially a waiting game.

"He has done all that probation will ever require of him under these circumstances," he said.

No hearing has been set for arguments on the issue, and Coppola was not immediately available to speak with a reporter.

Vargas has been forthright with New York officials about the trespassing charge, and he's been told that the character and fitness committee will wait for the outcome of his request to be taken off probation.

He said he hoped he could officially become a lawyer at the state's next swear-in June 26. But with no decision on his request in Polk County, that date seems less likely.

"Generally speaking, if somebody is on probation, we wait until their probation is concluded favorably before they are sworn in," said Aprilanne Agostino, a New York state clerk of court.

In resisting Vargas' request, Lane, the prosecutor, wrote that allowing him off probation after just two weeks would be unfair to other criminal defendants.

"There is nothing that has been presented to the court to show that the defendant has been rehabilitated in less than two weeks of being on probation, nor that the community is protected from further offenses of trespass by this defendant," she wrote.

But Vargas chafes at the suggestion he needs rehabilitation for his nonviolent crime.

"When they say that I haven't been rehabilitated, I guess kind of implying that I'm a danger to society, for me it's unfortunate," Vargas said.

Others agree. Similar protests are almost a tradition at Iowa caucus events, said Hildreth, the Iowa immigration advocate.

Barron said there's no need keep Vargas on probation.

"This is a very minor offense relative to all of the things that we prosecute in this country every day," he said. "This is someone who will hopefully have the opportunity to do a lot of good for his community. I hope the way they would handle this is to make sure he pays a penalty and let him go on with his life." " - Des Moines Register, June 18, 2015.