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Should undocumented immigrant get a law license? California court to decide.

The California Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday about whether it should grant a law license to Sergio Garcia, who put himself through college and law school and passed the bar exam.

By Staff writer / September 5, 2013

Sergio Garcia poses for photographs in San Francisco, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013.

Jeff Chiu/AP

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Go to law school, pass the bar, get a license to practice law: It’s a path that thousands of Americans have followed. Now, several immigrants – who don’t have citizenship or a green card but have been able to take the first two steps – say that they, too, should be allowed to practice law.

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The California Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday about whether it should grant a law license to Sergio Garcia. He was brought by his family from Mexico as a baby, returned to Mexico for part of his youth, and then came back to the United States at age 17 when his father (now a US citizen) became a permanent resident.

Mr. Garcia’s visa application was approved in 1995, but he is still waiting to receive it. He put himself through college and law school and passed the California bar exam.

Garcia’s case and similar ones in Florida and New York exemplify one way that state and local authorities are wrestling with what to do as an increasing number of undocumented immigrants who have been living and attending school in the US bump up against barriers to productive participation in their chosen careers.

In the past decade, even before they were called “DREAMers,” these immigrants accessed more education, so states will keep encountering cases “until we find a fix to the current inadequacies in our federal immigration system,” says Nicholas Espiritu, a staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles, which joined in a brief supporting Garcia. “These individuals have waited long enough, and we as a society are served by letting them give back to the state and the country,” he says.

Others supporting Garcia include the California attorney general, the state’s Committee of Bar Examiners, the American Civil Liberties Union, and various immigrant advocacy groups.

Opponents range from the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to groups that typically oppose “amnesty” or any policies that might encourage more illegal immigration.

“This is a case designed to push the envelope and see just how far we can bend the law to accommodate illegal aliens,” says Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington. “Aside from it not passing the litmus test for good old-fashioned common sense, allowing an illegal alien to be admitted to the bar creates a precedent for endless other professional certifications and licensing, from electricians to airline pilots.”

One of the main legal questions in Garcia’s case is whether the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 should apply. This federal law states, in part, that certain categories of aliens cannot receive “any grant, contract, loan, professional license, or commercial license provided by an agency of a State or local government or by appropriated funds of a State or local government,” unless a state law specifically allows it.

Garcia’s supporters argue that law licenses are issued by courts, not agencies, and that it’s a matter of state sovereignty to decide whom to admit to the bar. But the DOJ brief argues that the law’s “sweeping language demonstrates that Congress intended to act comprehensively” in denying professional law licenses, including those for lawyers. Many of the California Supreme Court justices made comments Wednesday indicating agreement with the DOJ, the Associated Press reported.

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