On January 3, 2014 the California Supreme Court granted a California license to practice law to an undocumented immigrant. Sergio Garcia, 36, is from Mexico and has lived in the United States for years. He first entered California when he was less than two years old, returned to Mexico at 9, and illegally re-entered the United States at the age of 17. He attended Cal Northern School of Law and passed the California Bar exam. However, he has not yet been granted a visa due to the long backlog of applicants (his father has resident status and filed for a visa on his son’s behalf in 1994).
Garcia challenged a 1996 law barring undocumented immigrants from receiving professional licenses from government agencies or with the use of public funds. The federal government argued the California courts were funded by public money, thus precluding him from being granted a license. Meanwhile, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a series of immigrant rights bills in October, including one allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain law licenses. This law took effect January 1, 2014. On January 3, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Garcia, determining he “possesses the requisite good moral character to qualify for a law license.”
Two similar cases are pending in Florida and New York. The Obama administration has made it clear that it will oppose Bar entry to undocumented immigrants unless each state’s Legislature passes its own laws allowing it. This position is surprising considering the Obama administration has shielded from deportation those who were brought to the United States illegally as children, graduated from high school, and have a clean criminal record.
Some questions on this matter remain unresolved. It is unclear how many people will qualify to practice law under the ruling. It is also unclear whether Garcia can argue cases in federal court or in other states. It is illegal under federal law for law firms to hire him.
This ruling may lead the way to allowing undocumented immigrants to receive professional licenses in other fields, such as medicine, nursing, and accounting.
More information about Garcia and the case can be found on CNN.