Undocumented ‘Dreamers’ can now become attorneys in Utah

Scott Matheson Courthouse. photo by Ryan Galbraith. 12/29/1999

Heidi Chamorro hasn’t spent much time thinking about what her career would look like after she passed the bar exam and became a licensed attorney.

The 31-year-old woman graduated from the University of Utah law school in 2015 — but hasn’t been able to take that final test because of a Utah rule that banned undocumented immigrants from practicing law here.

Chamorro was brought to the United States as a young girl from Oaxaca, Mexico, and has spent most of her life in Utah. After she started law school, she applied for and was accepted into the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows her to stay and work under certain conditions. But not as a lawyer, at least not here.

That changed Thursday when the Utah Supreme Court announced that it has approved a rule that explicitly allows Utah “Dreamers” — undocumented people brought to the United States as children — to become attorneys.

“I’ve tried not to think about it for a long time,” Chamorro said. “Not having that rule change in place and not having anything else, it’s kind of depressing. So I feel like I’m thinking about it for the first time.”

Chamorro and another Utah woman, who graduated from Brigham Young University’s law school, had petitioned the court for the Utah State Bar rule change. Both women have been granted DACA status — and both have been admitted to practice law in California.

The women were identified in court papers by aliases, but Chamorro gave The Salt lake Tribune permission to use her name.

In their petition, the women’s lawyers note that their clients “lacked the intent” to violate immigration laws, and have become productive members of society and attended United States schools, colleges and law schools.

The women would otherwise be eligible to take the bar exam, except for their immigration status.

Chamorro said Thursday that she was excited about the change, and is considering taking the Utah bar exam in July. But with the status of the DACA program uncertain, she worries it won’t help many future students who are in her position. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide in summer whether the program will continue.

“It’s kind of hard," she said, "because it feels like it took so long and now we’re at the heels of the Supreme Court reviewing this. It could make it really bittersweet if the [courts] allows them to get rid of DACA.”

Chamorro has been a part of a movement among Utah attorneys and law students who have been trying to change state law for the past four years. She eventually connected with her co-petitioner and, in October, an attorney filed with the Utah Supreme Court on their behalf.

The Supreme Court proposed a rule change in December, and has been taking public comment since then. Those 100 comments were largely supportive of the change — most were submitted by lawyers and citizens who voiced approval, along with public officials like Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

“The women who brought this case forward are among those who have attended our public schools and subsequent Utah law schools,” Mendenhall wrote. “Allowing the petitioners and other DACA recipients to realize the professional aspirations they have pursued for many years would be the logical progression in their careers.”

The new rule allows DACA recipients to apply for admission to the bar if they meet all other requirements. Previously, the Utah bar did not limit admission to U.S. citizens, but denied admission to “those who cannot establish that they are legally present.”

In November, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on President Donald Trump’s decision to end DACA, which was created by President Barack Obama in June 2012 and took effect in August of that year.

Three federal appeals courts have ruled that Trump cannot end the program, which shields almost 670,000 immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, from deportation, but — during oral arguments — the Supreme Court’s conservative majority appeared to favor allowing the Trump administration to abolish the program. A decision is expected in June.

As for Chamorro, she’ll now allow herself to start thinking about what a legal career might look like. She worked as a law clerk before switching careers to work in compliance, and she’s been reflecting on those experiences.

“It’s something I have to think about pretty soon,” she said. “It’s an exciting change.”

Editor’s note: Utah Supreme Court Justice John Pearce is the husband of Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce.