Legal dreams made reality - Albuquerque Journal

Legal dreams made reality

Luis Leyva-Castillo, a 2022 graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Law, expects to benefit from a recent Supreme Court rule change that will allow him to obtain a law license regardless of his immigration status. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Immigration status will no longer prevent someone from obtaining a license to practice law under a rule change approved by the New Mexico Supreme Court.

The state’s highest court on Friday added a sentence to its rules governing admission to the bar, saying, “License to practice law shall not be denied based solely on the applicant’s citizenship or immigration status.”

The change takes effect Oct. 1.

For Luis Leyva-Castillo, the rule change removes a cloud of uncertainty as he makes the journey from law school to practicing attorney.

Leyva-Castillo, 25, has lived in the U.S. since he was 8 years old and is enrolled in Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the federal program that allows him to work legally in the United States.

In May, Leyva-Castillo graduated from the University of New Mexico School of Law and now is waiting to learn if he passed the bar exam he took in July.

Assuming he passed, he said, the Supreme Court rule ensures that he can fulfill his dream of practicing law in New Mexico, regardless of ongoing legal challenges to DACA.

“Knowing that the state will allow me to fulfill that dream, regardless of what happens at the highest level with the U.S. Supreme Court, that provides me a lot of relief,” he said.

Not everyone is cheering the rule change.

The Republican Party of New Mexico calls the change “an egregious action” that will permit “illegal aliens to practice law” in New Mexico.

Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce called the rule change an “atrocious action” and accused the Supreme Court of making a “reckless decision” without public input.

“New Mexico’s high court has become authoritarian and appears to be operating outside the limits of its power,” Pearce said in a written statement issued this week.

“This latest rule will open our borders even more, and the Court seems to relish making arbitrary decisions without thinking about consequences,” he said. “This Court has gotten out of control, and it believes it can do whatever it wants.”

Chief Justice C. Shannon Bacon called the rule change “the final step in a natural progression of updating attorney licensure requirements.”

New Mexico for five years has allowed conditional admission of attorney applicants who either have a visa or are covered by DACA, Bacon said in a written statement. Conditional admission was successful and “made it clear it was appropriate now to revise the rule,” she said.

New Mexico is one of at least eight states that now permit admission to the state bar regardless of citizenship or immigration status, Bacon said.

“The change in the licensure rule is grounded in the fundamental principle of fairness, and is consistent with New Mexico’s historical values of inclusion and diversity in its culture,” she said.

Bacon also said the Supreme Court rule-making committee “carefully vetted” the change during “a thorough, deliberative process that included robust public comment, which was overwhelmingly in support of the change.”

The Supreme Court first proposed the rule change in March 2018 and invited public comment, court records show.

Albuquerque attorney Maureen Sanders cheered the rule change as “a huge statement for equality and justice” in New Mexico.

“I’ve been practicing law for 45 years, and working on this issue has been one of the highlights of my career because I’ve gotten to meet so many terrific people who are just wanting to give back to their community,” she said.

New Mexico law prohibits universities from denying admission or financial aid based on immigration status, Sanders said. Denying a law school graduate the opportunity to obtain a license to practice law is unjust, she said.

“Why educate people and not let them work?” she said.

The rule change will primarily affect recent law school graduates who lack legal immigration status, Sanders said.

“It’s not going to affect a large number of people,” she said. “But for those people that it affects, it’s really important.”

New Mexico has permitted a handful of attorneys – probably 10 or fewer – to obtain conditional law licenses, she said.

Jazmín Irazoqui-Ruiz, an attorney for the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, said she was the first attorney to receive a conditional license.

“The rule change that was announced this week is a direct result of my admission, and then the advocacy work that I’ve been leading since being admitted to practice law,” Irazoqui-Ruiz said.

Irazoqui-Ruiz, who moved to the U.S. at age 3, graduated from the UNM School of Law in May 2017 and passed the bar exam later that year.

“I sat for the bar exam knowing that there was a chance that I would not be admitted because of my immigration status,” she said.

Strong advocacy by Sanders and others eventually allowed her to obtain a conditional admission to the state bar, which required her to regularly prove valid employment authorization.

“That process is burdensome on the applicants because it requires additional things that other bar applicants don’t have to go through,” Irazoqui-Ruiz said. She obtained permanent resident status in 2018, freeing her from those requirements.

Leyva-Castillo said the rule change doesn’t remove all uncertainty from his future.

He is concerned that legal challenges to DACA wending through the courts may result in the U.S. Supreme Court striking down the program.

“It creates a lot of uncertainty because I don’t know if my work permit and Social Security number and everything else will be taken away from me,” he said. “But now, because of the (New Mexico) Supreme Court decision, I know my law license will not.”

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