Undocumented immigrant seeking to practice law awaits California Supreme Court ruling

A panel of legal experts discuss Sergio Garcia's case before the State Supreme Court at the LA Law Library.
A panel of legal experts discuss Sergio Garcia's case before the State Supreme Court at the LA Law Library.
Ruxandra Guidi/KPCC

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Sergio Garcia was 17 months old when his parents illegally brought him to the U.S. He was a star student throughout high school and college, and graduated from Cal Northern School of Law with a law degree. He has a clean record and passed the State Bar exam on his first try. But now he needs to secure his California law license.

“The only thing keeping him from getting his license at this point is his immigrant status – the only thing," says Juan Ramos, a Los Angeles-based attorney and board member of the Mexican American Bar Association. "Other than that, everything’s clean.”

RELATED: Can undocumented immigrants practice law? California Supreme Court to decide 

Under federal law, undocumented immigrants are not eligible to receive public benefits. So the question is: Would a professional license to practice law qualify as a public benefit? And if Garcia got his license, would the federal government allow him to work as a lawyer?

This will be at the heart of Garcia’s case, which is likely to set a new precedent. 

“I may be unemployable for lots of different reasons, but for my own personal accomplishments, I want to get a law license," argues Joe Dunn, executive director of the State Bar of California. "If you meet the criteria to get a law license, we’ll recommend you for admission. The employability question may be an important question in society; it is not a relevant question when it comes to one’s fitness, which is all our decision is, to practice law.”

Critics argue that the very act of being an undocumented immigrant constitutes “moral turpitude,” which should disqualify Garcia from becoming a lawyer.  

To this, Garcia, now 35-years-old, replies: “What was my moral duty at 17 months?”

The California Supreme Court is expected to hear the case this Spring.

This story has been corrected: Garcia received an undergraduate degree from Chico State University and a law degree from Cal Northern School of Law.