Sergio Garcia said he meets all the requirements for a license to practice law in California. The 36-year-old graduated from law school and passed the state bar exam on the first try in 2009, but he hasn’t been able to get his license because he is undocumented.
“It was devastating. Reaching your dream and then having it taken away was devastating,” he said, describing how he felt when he found out the California Supreme Court hadn’t signed off on his license to practice law even after he passed the state bar exam.
Garcia was 17 years old when he and his family left Mexico in 1994 to come reunite with his father in the United States. Garcia’s father, who had just become a U.S. citizen, sponsored his son for an immigrant visa. The visa was approved in 1995 but Garcia hasn’t received it, and he is still undocumented.
The Department of Justice is now trying to block Garcia’s admission to the State Bar of California, saying it would be in violation of federal law to grant him a license to practice law because he is undocumented. But Garcia argues he should be able to practice law, given that a lawful immigration status is not a requirement to get a law license in California.
He went before the California Supreme Court on Wednesday to ask the court to admit him to the State Bar of California as a licensed attorney.
“What’s at stake here is the realization of my dream,” Garcia told VOXXI. “But more than that, at this point, is basically the message that the California Supreme Court wants to send to the world and whether they want to encourage the American dream or kill it.”
DOJ: Undocumented status makes Garcia ineligible for law license
Attorneys representing the DOJ argue that Garcia’s immigration status makes him ineligible for a license to practice law under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.
The federal law prohibits immigrants who lack a lawful status from obtaining certain public benefits. The DOJ argues that granting Garcia a license to practice law would violate the federal law, because the California Supreme Court uses public funds to issue law licenses.
But Garcia’s attorneys argue that the license to practice law was never contemplated by the federal law passed in 1996 and that the intent of the federal law was to ensure that no undocumented immigrant became a burden to the state.
“I have never been a burden to the state, and I will never be a burden to the state,” Garcia told VOXXI. “I contribute greatly in taxes. I’m an entrepreneur, so I create jobs and stimulate the economy.”
He added that he paid for his way through college with the money he earned by working at a grocery store and with the proceeds he made from a book he wrote in 2006.
In the last four years, he has been making a living as a motivational speaker and by providing paralegal services to undocumented youth applying for a federal program that allows them to stay and work in the U.S. The Obama administration announced the program, dubbed Deferred Action Program for Childhood Arrivals, last summer but Garcia doesn’t qualify for it because of his age.
Does Garcia qualify for license to practice law?
While Garcia has been receiving much support from many people, including the California Attorney General Kamala Harris, there are some who oppose his admission to the state bar.
One of those individuals is Larry DeSha, a former prosecutor with the State Bar of California. He told the Associated Press:
“He can’t say he is going to fulfill his duties as attorney when one of those duties is to uphold all federal laws, when he’s here illegally. And no one can administer the oath to him knowing he’s going to be illegal the minute he puts his hand down. And the other thing is clients can’t pay him money. And any client who finds out that he is illegal has to fire him under federal law.”
But Annaluisa Padilla, an attorney in California, said the focus of the case shouldn’t be on Garcia’s immigration status. Instead, she said it should be on whether Garcia has met all the requirements to be granted a license to practice law by the State Bar of California.
“Our understanding is that he does,” she told VOXXI. “He went to law school, he passed the bar exam four years ago and he has proven that he has good moral character. Those are the requirements here in California.”
Padilla is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which joined several groups in filing an amicus brief in support of Garcia. She said the California Supreme Court’s decision on Garcia’s case will be “historic.”
Garcia agreed, saying this is “a landmark case that will test whether there is going to be a change in the law to require people to actually be legal residents or citizens or not, because right now there is nothing on the books.”