Cesar Vargas: undocumented lawyer fighting for 'American dream'

Undocumented lawyer Cesar Vargas (front, second right) pictured in New York on December 9, 2016 (AFP Photo/Laura Bonilla Cal)
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New York (AFP) - Cesar Vargas was five years old when he arrived in New York, having crossed the Mexican border by crawling under a fence.

Today, at 33, he is a lawyer defending other undocumented immigrants in the turbulent era of Donald Trump.

A frigid wind was blowing in Manhattan, but Vargas asked to meet AFP in Battery Park, in front of the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of hope and rebirth for generations of immigrants arriving in New York.

"I know one day I'll be sworn in as an American citizen," he said, hands shoved deep in the pockets of his chestnut-colored cloth coat.

"But I don't need a piece of paper to tell me that I am an American. I am an American and I am going to fight for everyone to achieve the American dream."

After graduating with top marks from a New York law school and passing the state bar exam the same year, Vargas had to fight a four-year battle to be allowed to practice law.

A year ago he finally succeeded, becoming the first openly undocumented lawyer in New York.

"It was a major victory," he said in English, the language he feels most comfortable speaking. "Here in New York, the state said, 'Back off, federal government!'"

- The things she carried -

Vargas grew up in humble surroundings on the outskirts of Puebla, in central Mexico. He recalls many times when he and his seven brothers and sisters had nothing to eat but coffee and sweet bread.

A few years after his mother Teresa was left a widow, she discovered that her four teenage children, who had already left for the United States, were homeless -- sleeping on a beach -- and she decided to join them, emigrating along with the younger children.

"I still remember my last day in Mexico. My teacher comes to pick me up and says, 'Your mom is here.'"

She had brought his little brother and two sisters.

They went to the Puebla cathedral to pray. Kneeling at the altar, his mother implored, "Dear God, take care of us!"

"I have a picture of that last day. My mom is carrying a plastic bag."

She had no luggage. In the bag were the contents of their lives -- the only possessions they would carry on the trek northward.

The early days in their new home were not easy, Vargas says.

In the New York borough of Brooklyn, his mother, who was illiterate, found work cooking, selling food, looking after children, or collecting cans that she could resell for five cents apiece at a recycling center.

Vargas grew up, and as he got older he saw how many lawyers were swindling immigrants, promising papers that never arrived while charging exorbitant fees.

"I told myself I just cannot be on the sidelines," he said. "I was in the closet (regarding his immigration status), I needed to tell my story."

He came out of that closet in 2010, revealing his undocumented status in a venue no less conspicuous than a hearing on immigration reform in the US Congress.

"It made me understand the power of my story, that there wasn't anything to be ashamed of. I felt empowered once I told it, I felt liberated," he said. "This is who I am. I don't have to hide."

"I felt I needed to be an activist, to ensure other people could be empowered."

But his most important case -- adding purpose to his life -- is to get papers for his mother, who is now over 70.

- A fight against fear -

Vargas, who during last year's US presidential campaign advised Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders, does not know how far President Trump will go in pursuing his promise to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and build a wall along the Mexican border.

But with the new administration already trying to change the rules for refugees and for immigrants from seven mainly Muslim countries, he is preparing "for the worst."

He is co-director of the Dream Action Coalition, an organization advocating a path to citizenship for the undocumented. The group has an emergency plan for immigrants who are detained, and often works gratis to protect the undocumented in New York, particularly those of Mexican origin.

Vargas says his main job is to be sure these people understand their rights, that they not be overcome by fear, and that they remain united during what are likely to be testing times under the Trump administration.

Today, Vargas can work legally, thanks partly to a decree known as DACA signed in 2012 by then-president Barack Obama. It granted hundreds of thousands of young people who were brought to the US as children the right to renewable two-year residency and work permits.

But Vargas also recalls that Obama deported more immigrants than any of his predecessors, and he believes the president signed the decree thinking it would help him gain re-election in 2012.

"We don't know if DACA will be eliminated" under Trump, Vargas said, "but regardless of all that, we are going to continue to fight for the right to be in the country we call home."

"My mom taught me the American dream is not about a fancy car, is not about a big house, it is opening the door to many people regardless of their immigration status, regardless of their religion."

He added: "That's what it means being an American."

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