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This Undocumented Immigrant Just Graduated Law School. Now She Wants to Change Who Can Practice Law

Quinnipiac University School of Law graduate Denia Perez spoke at a public hearing Monday supporting amending the Connecticut Practice Book to allow DACA beneficiaries to practice law in Connecticut.

[gallery ids="9685,9686,9687,9688"] Denia Perez graduated from Quinnipiac University School of Law on Sunday. First thing Monday morning, she headed to Hartford, Connecticut, on a mission to advocate for a change that might allow her to work as a lawyer. Perez has the law degree, but unless jurists amend a Connecticut Practice Book rule that requires bar applicants to be U.S. citizens or aliens lawfully residing in the U.S., she will never be allowed to practice in that state. The 28-year-old is a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which the Obama administration created in 2012 to protect children of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. before their 16th birthday. "My whole life has been uncertain," Perez said Monday. "Getting into college was uncertain and getting through it and paying for it was uncertain. But being a lawyer has always been a dream of mine." Perez's fight illustrates the precarious position of DACA beneficiaries, called "Dreamers," across the U.S., especially those who choose to attend law school. California, for instance, admits undocumented law graduates to the bar, but many other states have vague immigration requirements, according to Law.com. Indiana, for example, excludes dreamers from several professions, including law. An estimated 800,000 undocumented immigrants have deferrals from deportation, obtained work permits and received other protections under DACA. It in unclear how many study law, but Harvard University’s National UnDACAmented Research Project found that 42 percent of the 1,608 DACA program participants surveyed expect to obtain a master’s degree, a professional degree or a law degree. But beneficiaries face great uncertainty as President Donald Trump mulls rescinding the DACA program. "The big picture, legally speaking, is about Connecticut—and the states around us that have made changes in their laws—acting on what we mean when we say 'equal protection,' and making its promises of inclusion meaningful," said Sheila Hayre, a visiting associate professor of law at Quinnipiac University. Hayre said the change would send a strong message to other states across the country. She and Perez joined five other speakers Monday morning addressing the 10-member Rules Committee of the Superior Court at a public hearing. All seven spoke in favor of amending the Practice Book. They overcame their first hurdle, when the Rules Committee voted to recommend amending the language. A final vote will take place June 15 at the annual meeting of the judges, when Superior, appellate and Supreme Court judges convene. If the judges OK the change next month, the Practice Book language will be amended sometime in July, after a notice in the Connecticut Law Tribune. Currently, Practice Book 2-8(1) reads: "To entitle an applicant to admission to the bar … the applicant must satisfy the committee that (1) The applicant is a citizen of the United States, or an alien lawfully residing in the United States." The Rules Committee approved a proposed amendment that would add the following language to the end of the paragraph: "which shall include an individual authorized to work lawfully in the United States." The proposal would benefit "dreamers" with work permits. Perez graduated from San Francisco State University in 2012 with a degree in women's and gender studies before attending Quinnipiac. Now a New Haven resident, she told the Connecticut Law Tribune many people are unaware of the obstacles to U.S. citizenship. "The immigration laws are complicated," she said. "You can get a green card if you qualify as a refugee or based on humanitarian reasons. Those are often done on a case-by-case basis." In her case, Perez said, her parents were undocumented for most of her life, but obtained permanent residency, or so-called green cards, in 2016. "My dad submitted a petition at that time on my behalf for me to get a green card," she said. "But because of the backlog, it could take 10 years or more." Perez said she will be a fellow at Make The Road New York, which is a community-based organization in New York City that does advocacy work in the area of housing, immigration and employment issues. Perez said she has a two-year fellowship and will be at the organization from September 2018 to September 2020 "doing deportation defense work with them." New York, California, Florida, New Jersey, Colorado and Pennsylvania are among the states that have language allowing so-called dreamers to practice law. In the meantime, the law school grad is hoping for a rule change in Connecticut. In February, the Connecticut Bar Examining Committee voted unanimously in favor of the proposed change in the practice book. In addition, the deans of all three Connecticut law schools—Quinnipiac University School of Law, University of Connecticut School of Law and Yale Law School—have thrown their support behind changing the practice book. "This is really important," Perez said. "I think it's the right thing to do. Surrounding states have done it and it makes sense for Connecticut to fall in line. I'm lending my voice to help open the doors for other undocumented people in Connecticut who want to go to law school and practice in Connecticut."