Illegal Immigrant Who Wants to Be a Lawyer May be Blocked by Federal Law

Saturday, September 14, 2013
Sergio Garcia, (photo: Nick Ut, AP)

Journalists covering the California Supreme Court indicated they wouldn’t be surprised to see a unanimous decision by the seven justices that Sergio C. Garcia, an illegal immigrant, cannot become a lawyer because federal law forbids it.


Garcia was brought to the United States from Mexico by his parents when he was an infant. He returned to Mexico with them at age 9 and came back to the U.S. at 17. The 36-year-old put himself through college and Cal Northern School of Law. Garcia was working as a paralegal when he applied to the bar. He passed the examination on his first try in 2009. Garcia applied for admittance to the bar in 2011 and is applying for U.S. citizenship, which could take up to 15 years.


His father, a naturalized U.S. citizen, applied for his son’s legal residency in 1994. Garcia was put on a waiting list and was told he could get his green card in six years, but now it appears he may have to wait until 2019.


The most cautious assessment of a broad sampling—from Paul Elias at Associated Press—found that a “majority” of the “justices appeared reluctant,” but most observers were more inclined toward the view of Howard Mintz at the San Jose Mercury News: “Each of the court's seven justices indicated that a nearly 20-year-old federal immigration law blocks them from permitting illegal immigrants to become licensed California lawyers.”


The 1996 law in question prohibits illegal immigrants from receiving any “state or local public benefit,” including a professional license provided by a “state agency.” Garcia, his attorneys, the State Bar and California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who wrote a brief (pdf) on his behalf, argued that the law was vague.


California lawyers are given their professional licenses by the state Supreme Court, which is not an agency. Case law, argued State Bar attorney James Wagstaffe, indicated that law licenses weren’t to be considered “professional” licenses. He said, “Because of the inherent power of the courts to admit attorneys…it is not attempting to regulate those” unless it specifically mentions them.


According to Laila Kearney at Reuters, Justice Goodwin Liu wasn’t buying the argument. “Is there anything else other than law licenses that are excised from the common-sense reading of the term ‘professional license?’ ” Liu asked Wagstaffe. The answer was no.


Justice Carol Corrigan asked pretty much the same question. “But don't you think that if they really wanted to say, ‘all other licenses…except lawyers,’ they could have said that?”


As Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, the justices were zeroing in on the law, a specific law in this case, and weren’t considering the context, looking at a bigger picture or, in the words of Egelko’s headline writer, taking into account the “human factor.” Egelko said Garcia’s name may have been mentioned just once during the 75-minute hearing, and that was when a Deputy State Attorney General Ross Moody asked the justices rhetorically, “Who’s more self-sufficient than Sergio Garcia?”


The response from Justice Liu was, “I can see that, but that’s not the point.”


The California Supreme Court will decide his case within 90 days. Similar pleas to practice law in New York and Florida are working their way through the state legal systems.

-Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Undocumented Immigrant, Sergio Garcia, Fights to Become a Lawyer in California (by Paul Elias, Associated Press)

Attorney License Case Faces Tough Opposition (by Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle)

California High Court to Decide if Illegal Immigrant Can Practice Law (by Laila Kearney, Reuters)

Court Hears Illegal Immigrant's Bid for Law License (by Howard Mintz, San Jose Mercury News)

California High Court Indicates It Will Deny law License to Immigrant (by Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times)

Immigrant’s Case in Court: No Human Factor (by Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle)

Feds Tell State Supreme Court Not to Let Illegal Immigrant Practice Law (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

State Bar Asks High Court to Let Illegal Immigrant Practice Law (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

In re Sergio C.Garcia (California courts documents)


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