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Abstract

No court has decided whether an undocumented immigrant can be admitted to a state bar in a manner consistent with federal law. At the time of this writing, the issue is pending before the California Supreme Court. Federal law prohibits states from providing public benefits to undocumented immigrants. In its definition of a “public benefit,” 8 U.S.C. § 1621 includes any professional license “provided by an agency of a State . . . or by appropriated funds of a State . . . .” The law’s prohibitions, however, are not unqualified. The statute’s “savings clause” allows states to provide public benefits to immigrants unlawfully present through an affirmative enactment of state law. Current scholarship surrounding this issue has primarily focused on public policy implications. This Note sets out to answer the question of whether 8 U.S.C. § 1621 generally precludes states from issuing law licenses to undocumented immigrants, and if so, how a state may circumvent that prohibition. First, this Note addresses the threshold question of whether a law license is a public benefit under the federal statute. Contrary to the argument put forward by the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar of California, I argue that the most straightforward reading of the statute includes law licenses within the category of prohibited public benefits. Second, this Note explores how a state could use the statute’s savings clause to provide law licenses to undocumented immigrants. By requiring an affirmative enactment of state law, Congress likely had in mind legislative enactments. I argue, however, that in the realm of bar admission where state supreme courts have plenary power to set requirements, a court rule allowing for eligibility of undocumented immigrants should be sufficient to trigger the statute’s savings clause.