Alan Gomez, USA Today, January 2, 2014
The California Supreme Court granted a law license Thursday to an undocumented immigrant, a first-of-its-kind ruling that allows Sergio Garcia to practice law in his adopted state.
The question remains: Can he find work as a lawyer?
The court ruled that a combination of federal and state laws allows for Garcia, who was first brought to the USA by his parents from Mexico when he was 17 months old, to obtain the law license necessary for him to practice law in California.
The opinion was not so clear on how he can use that license.
Garcia, the justices wrote, cannot work as an employee of a law firm or any other company because of his undocumented status — federal law prohibits businesses from hiring undocumented immigrants, and he remains in that status. The opinion said he could do legal work on a pro bono basis.
The opinion was unclear on another option: whether Garcia and others in his position can work as lawyers on their own, retaining their own clients.
“We assume that a licensed undocumented immigrant will make all necessary inquiries and take appropriate steps to comply with applicable legal restrictions and will advise potential clients of any possible adverse or limiting effect the attorney’s immigration status may pose,” the opinion read.
Some were stunned by Thursday’s ruling.
“Aside from all the legal technicalities, the idea that we are having people who are in violation of federal law practicing law is almost ‘Alice in Wonderland’ kind of logic,” said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for lower levels of legal and illegal immigration. “Everything seems to be turned on its head here.”
Garcia, 36, was first brought to the USA by his parents when he was 17 months old. After stints picking almonds and working in a grocery store, he graduated from Chico State University and the Cal Northern School of Law and passed the state bar exam in July 2009. But the state bar wouldn’t grant him a law license because of a 1996 federal law that bars people living in the country illegally from receiving professional licenses from government agencies.
During oral arguments in Garcia’s case, California Supreme Court justices discussed a provision of that law that allows for undocumented immigrants to receive licenses if a state legislature passes a law allowing it. State lawmakers moved quickly, introducing a bill to do just that in September, and Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law Oct. 5.
The law went into effect Jan. 1, and the court ruled the next day that Garcia could be granted his license.