Why can’t DACA recipients become lawyers in Florida?

Ilse Cruz, 28, came to the United States from Honduras at age nine. Today, she is an admissions counselor at Florida Atlantic University who dreams of becoming a lawyer. She was allowed to stay in the U.S. because of a policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which was passed in June 2012.

But then, this past July 1, a new Florida law took effect that blocks DACA recipients and undocumented individuals from admission into The Florida Bar.   

“Even though I have the grades, I have the test scores, you’re telling me I can’t practice law,” Cruz said. “You’re telling me that I can’t serve my community and I can’t advocate for my community the way I should.”

Senate Bill (SB) 1718, or the anti-immigration law, was included in the many bills Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law in May. The law states that, effective November 1, 2028, DACA recipients and undocumented immigrants will be blocked from joining The Florida Bar. This directly repeals Sen. Rick Scott’s 2014 legislation when he was Florida’s governor.

Many who are undocumented may not realize that joining a law school fall 2024 will be the last chance they have to become a lawyer in Florida. Any year proceeding will be blocked because of their legal status.

Law school starts in the fall season, and generally takes three years to complete for full-time students and four to five years for part-time students. The Florida Bar exam is offered in Feb. and July to both law school graduates and law students about to graduate from an American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law school.

“It just shows how anti-immigrant the Republican party has become in recent years,” said Thomas Kennedy, political director of Florida Immigrant Coalition.

In a general perspective, SB1718 simply poses another hurdle for undocumented immigrants. As a minority population among the 21.78 million people who live in Florida, they face major difficulties even being admitted into law school, such as not having access to academic resources.

“I’m taking the law school admissions test (LSAT) in August,” said Cruz, who encourages bipartisan immigration laws. “I’ve taken it three times because those tests are not meant for minorities to succeed and the resources out there for minorities are not a lot, just to be honest. As an educator myself, we look at the graphs when admitting students. I know that numbers are not everything, but unfortunately in the state of Florida that’s where we’re at right now.”

To be admitted into law school, an applicant needs to have an LSAT score of usually 150 or higher, a GPA of around 3.55, recommendation letters, provide an application fee and a personal statement.

Just like a student with legal status, it takes hundreds of dollars to apply to a diverse range of law schools. And, if accepted into law school, undocumented individuals do not have access to federal student loans to pay for tuition which resorts them to private lenders. 

This also means undocumented immigrants aspiring to be lawyers after 2024 might have to go out of Florida to fulfill their dreams. But that may not be a reality in itself, since it requires out-of-state tuition costs and housing. 

Information courtesy of Florida College Access Network

In the U.S, Florida is one of the top states that have undocumented students in post-secondary education. Three percent, or 42,000 undocumented individuals, make up the state’s student population. 

It may seem like a small amount, but DACA recipients and undocumented immigrants factor heavily into the labor market and state economy once they graduate. 

The entirety of SB1718 has already damaged the agricultural and business sectors of the state, almost a month since it has been in effect. A portion of this economic decline is because of the law’s requirements for hospitals to collect an immigrant’s legal status, invalidates undocumented people’s licenses from other states and more, that has caused undocumented immigrants to leave the state.

Uncertainty lies ahead for how the state will hold up without a portion of the undocumented student population able to become lawyers too. But concern continues to grapple with these immigrant’s personal lives.

“[DACA recipients and undocumented peoples] lives have been upended,” said Kennedy. “Now they are having to make plans on what to do if they stay in the state. How are they going to work and practice law?” 

This story has been updated to include Cruz’s support for bipartisan immigration law.

Alexandra Howard is a senior pursuing a dual degree in digital journalism and political science. She intends to later graduate from law school and become an immigration lawyer and political journalist.