How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

An uphill battle for unauthorized immigrant law school grad

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The California Supreme Court justices weighing the case of a law school graduate who is in the U.S. illegally have indicated there could be roadblocks to granting him a license to practice law.

Sergio Garcia, 36, passed the California Bar Exam and was recommended for a license in 2011. Before granting him a license, however, justices raised questions over his immigration status. Garcia, who was born in Mexico, has been in line for legal status since he was in his teens. He's hoping to practice law while he awaits his green card, a process that could take a few more years. But in today's hearing, the justices suggested federal law might prohibit it.

The federal government, which filed an objection to California's licensing of Garcia, holds that immigrants without legal status cannot be legally employed and cannot receive public benefits. It's the latter argument - specifically, that a professional license is a public benefit which Garcia is not entitled to receive - that could prove to be the sticking point.

Under federal law, unauthorized immigrants are not entitled to “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.” 

Garcia's attorney, Jerome Fishkin says that federal law should not be an obstacle for his client. "Our argument is that this law does not apply to a law license," Fishkin wrote in an email. "A long line of U.S. Supreme Court cases says, regulation of attorneys is a core power of the State, and regulation of core powers cannot be implied when the federal government claims that a federal law preempts the laws of the State."

Garcia, who was at the hearing, said one of the federal government's arguments - that he couldn't legally work because of his immigration status - didn't garner as much attention as other issues. Fishkin and Garcia have argued that while Garcia can't legally be employed by a law firm, he could employ himself in his own practice.

The state Supreme Court has 90 days to issue a final decision.  On route back from the hearing in San Francisco to his home near Chico, Garcia said he was still guardedly optimistic.

"I think it can go either way, and whatever happens, happens," he said.  "We're ready to deal with it either way."

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