Undocumented immigrant can practice law, California Supreme Court rules

California was the first state to specifically allow undocumented immigrants to earn law licenses. Now Sergio Garcia, whose immigration status is pending, has earned that privilege.

Nick Ut/AP/File
Sergio Garcia speaks at The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles news conference in Los Angeles, Aug. 27, 2013.

Sergio Garcia’s immigration status is still pending, but he is now allowed to practice law in the State of California.

The California Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday to admit Mr. Garcia to the State Bar. A state law passed in the fall, while his application for a license was under review by the court, paved the way for the decision. Taking effect Jan. 1, the new law made California the first state to specifically allow undocumented immigrants to earn law licenses.

Similar cases are pending in Florida and New York.

“I'm speechless, tired, relieved,” Garcia said just after the ruling came down, according to NBC News. “I never in my life imagined it would take me longer to win my right to practice than it took to actually get my degree,” he also said. “I’m glad California is moving forward, and I think we’re setting a good example for the rest of the country.”

Garcia was born in Mexico and brought to the United States as a baby without documentation. Later, his father, who attained lawful permanent-resident status, applied for a visa on Garcia’s behalf. The visa petition was accepted in 1995, but a backlog in the system means it may not be granted for many years.

Garcia lived for a time in Mexico, but graduated from high school, college, and law school in California and passed the bar exam in 2009. When he applied for a law license and indicated his immigration status was pending, the Committee of Bar Examiners investigated his background and recommended that he be admitted to the bar.

The state Supreme Court entertained briefs for and against his admission and heard oral arguments in early September. These focused largely on a federal statute that generally restricts undocumented immigrants from receiving professional licenses, unless allowed by state law.

Shortly after those arguments, the state passed its new law.

The law “removed any obstacle to Garcia’s admission to the State Bar that may have been posed by other provisions of that federal statute,” a press release from the California Supreme Court said on Thursday.

The court also ruled that a variety of other objections to admitting undocumented immigrants to the bar that had been raised in the case lacked merit.

The court had examined Garcia’s particular qualifications, and the ruling quoted from letters of reference submitted to the Committee of Bar Examiners. An attorney for whom Garcia worked as an unpaid intern had advised: “I know with absolute certainty that Mr. Garcia [is] among the most honest, forthright, and moral individuals I have ever met.”

The court concluded that “Garcia met his burden of demonstrating that he possesses the requisite good moral character to qualify for a law license,” the statement said.

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