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Leading the effort to remove bar admission barrier for undocumented law students

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Thomas Kim
Thomas Kim, 2017-2018 ABA Law Student Division chair, addresses the House of Delegates in New York in August in support of Resolution 108.

Law students successfully lobbied the ABA House of Delegates in August to adopt Resolution 108, urging Congress to amend federal law to add language that bar admission shouldn’t be denied based solely on immigration status.

Support for the resolution was heavily one-sided in support of passage. In fact, the resolution passed on a voice vote, which typically occurs when passage is essentially unchallenged.

Student leaders

Thomas Kim, the ABA Law Student Division chair, is an undocumented student who faces uncertainty about sitting for the bar exam in his home state of Oregon. It and most other states have held that an applicant’s undocumented status violates the character and fitness portion of the bar application since that status is in technical violation of the law.

Chris Morgan, a former LSD circuit governor, helped shepherd 108 through the resolution process. “The passage of the undocumented student resolution was a collaborative effort by student leaders across the country to shed light on and address a serious issue facing law students in this country,” he said. “An individual’s undocumented status should not, in and of itself, preclude an individual from sitting for the bar exam if they’ve otherwise met the character and fitness criteria for a given state.”

Denying the opportunity to sit for the bar on these grounds “is at odds with many of the principles that this country stands for,” added Morgan. “These are extremely capable individuals who have a lot to contribute to the profession.”

Not a character violation 

The overwhelming majority of speakers supported the principle that bar admission shouldn’t be denied based solely on immigration status.

Several ABA LSD leaders were among them. Standing behind a podium with a banner that read, “Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice,” Kim stated that he was representing all law students of America. He argued that Resolution 108 was in total alignment with what the ABA has done since its very conception, upholding a commitment to diversity, a commitment to justice, a commitment to equality, and a commitment to fairness.

Six states—Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, and New York—allow undocumented immigrants to sit for the bar, Kim noted. He highlighted the fact that hundreds of law students all over the United States can be licensed to practice law and give back to the country that has been so generous to them.

“This is an issue that impacts real people, many of whom wish to contribute to this profession, expanding the access to justice where they serve, and contributing in many, many other ways,” said John Weber, an LSD delegate.

Weber, who taught high school government, has worked with many undocumented students and now works alongside undocumented colleagues both at his law school and within the ABA. He noted the need to send a strong message from the ABA in support of these students who are otherwise qualified to be admitted to the bar.

“All that we ask is to allow students who are otherwise qualified to be admitted to the bar in the state and the country that is their home,” he argued.

Rule of Law opposition

The resolution wasn’t without opposition. Jack Long, a delegate from Georgia, argued that while he’d love to work alongside undocumented students, as a lawyer, he’s tasked with upholding the rule of law. Thus, he couldn’t advocate that those in violation of the law join the profession.

“Each state’s bar admission committee screens applicants vigilantly to ensure only those who follow the law can have an opportunity to be part of our respective state bars,” Long said. He then stated that neither undocumented students nor those who’ve received citations for driving under the influence fulfill the necessity of “fitness” when sitting for a bar exam.

Long said a history of violating the law is of great import to fitness committees and contended the ABA shouldn’t advocate for admission for students in “open and notorious” violation of the law. Even if the students sit for the bar, added Long, it would be difficult or even impossible for them to practice law because of eVerify and other hiring practices to determine citizenship. He did not want to provide false hope to these law students.

Resolution passes

The victorious Kim beamed with excitement and gratitude following the vote. “This is an exhilarating victory for all law students and for the entire legal industry,” he said. “Resolution 108 empowers people, establishes equality, and promotes justice for all.”

The ABA may now choose to identify this official policy as a legislative priority for future lobbying efforts. In fact, Weber provided Kim a copy of the book of resolutions with an inscription stating that their work had only just begun. To get involved, contact Kim at 123thomaskim@gmail.com or Weber at JohnWeber.ky@gmail.com.

Dayna Maeder Dayna Maeder is a 1L student at Florida State University College of Law. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Central Florida where she studied English and mass communications, and went on to earn her Master’s in Education. Dayna is a former journalist who edited and wrote articles for Houston Chronicle, Chicago Tribune and other major newspapers and magazines throughout the nation. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her family, skydiving, playing poker and reading novels.