Immigrant Fights to Become California Lawyer

KTVU (San Francisco), September 4, 2013

A majority of California Supreme Court justices appeared reluctant Wednesday to grant a law license to Sergio Garcia, who graduated law school and passed the state’s bar exam but has been living illegally in the United States for 20 years.

A federal law passed by Congress in 1996 bars immigrants in the country illegally from receiving “professional licenses” from government agencies or with the use of public funds unless state lawmakers specifically vote otherwise.

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The court has 90-days to rule in a case that has garnered national attention, putting the Obama administration against state officials who supported Garcia’s application.

Outside of court, Garcia expressed optimism that the Supreme Court would rule in his favor despite the tough questions asked of the lawyers who spoke on his side during an hour of oral arguments.

If he does lose, Garcia vowed to continue fighting to become a California lawyer either through the state Legislature or in the federal courts.

“This is about trying to live the American Dream and showing other immigrants that hard work and dedication does mean something in this country,” he said.

The state Supreme Court is in charge of licensing lawyers in California and the arguments boiled down to whether public money would be used in its licensing of Garcia. Lawyers for Garcia and the California State bar also argued that Congress meant to exempt attorney licenses from the law because they are issued by courts and not agencies.

A U.S. Department of Justice lawyer argued that Garcia is barred from receiving his law license because the court’s entire budget comes from the public treasury.

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The dispute is the latest high-profile immigration clash between state and federal laws. Usually, it’s the Obama administration opposing state laws in Arizona and elsewhere thought to be anti-immigrant.

The Obama position surprised some, since it had recently adopted a program that shields people who were brought to the U.S. as children, graduated high school and have kept a clean criminal record from deportation and allows them to legally work in the country.

At 36, Garcia is too old to qualify for the Obama program. {snip}

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But legal scholars and others say Garcia faces obstacles if he wins his law license.

Garcia will have to work for himself because no law firm or other employers could legally hire him. And he may be automatically disqualified from representing certain clients and taking on some types of cases because of his citizenship status.

“Garcia is not qualified to practice law because he continually violates federal law by his presence in the United States,” former State Bar prosecutor Larry DeSha said in one of the few “friend of the court” briefs filed opposing Garcia’s licensing.

A similar case is brewing in Florida. That state’s Supreme Court has so far refused to certify a person living illegally in the U.S. as a lawyer, but has not issued a final ruling.

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