In a landmark case for immigrants' rights, California's highest court on Thursday admitted a Mexican immigrant to the state bar, even though he lacks legal status.
While Sergio Garcia has been granted a law license, he can't be hired by a law firm because he is in the country illegally. He is able to practice on his own, however, and he said he plans to hire associates.
"It's a wonderful thing," Garcia, who is 36, told KPCC. "It's been something I've been working on for the last five years of my life, almost."
Legal experts described the state Supreme Court's 7-0 ruling as a potentially precedent-setting decision that would benefit other immigrants in Garcia's situation.
"Under the Supreme Court ruling, now undocumented applicants will be treated in the same way as other applicants," said Ingrid Eagly, assistant professor of law at UCLA. "Their unlawful status by itself is not something that can be categorically used to exclude them from the bar."
State overrides federal ban
In oral arguments last September, justices had questioned the validity of Garcia's bid to practice law, citing a 1996 federal law that keeps immigrants without legal status from earning professional licenses from the government.
There is a way for states to override the federal ban, and in October, the California state legislature enacted a law that did exactly that - which, in turn, cleared the way for justices to come to their unanimous decision.
"In light of the recently enacted state legislation, we conclude that the Committee’s motion to admit Garcia to the State Bar should be granted," Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote.
The Department of Justice, which had initially opposed licensing Garcia, declined to comment Thursday. But in a Nov. 13 brief filed with the state Supreme Court, the department indicated that its argument against Garcia was no longer relevant because the state, by enacting the special provision, had:
"... exercised the authority expressly recognized in the federal statute to enact laws affirmatively making unlawfully present aliens eligible for state and local public benefits for which such aliens would otherwise be ineligible ..."
Garcia's case could influence similar cases pending in New York and Florida by spotlighting the role state lawmakers can play in immigration issues, said USC law professor Jody Armour.
"[The federal government] said essentially, 'We aren't going to pass pro-immigrant reform in a way that allows undocumented immigrants to get professional licenses, but we're not going to keep you from doing it. You can go ahead and do it, and you can take the credit for it or the blame for it, but you have the responsibility,'" Armour said.
A groundswell of support
Garcia has received an outpouring of support on his Facebook page, where he posted this message: "With tears in my eyes I'm happy to report I am being admitted to the bar, thank God! This one is for all of you who dare to dream and by doing so change the world! Love you all! History was made today!"
Among Garcia's backers was California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris. A spokesman for her office, Nick Pacilio, issued this statement:
“We applaud today’s ruling and are pleased that the Court agreed with the State’s argument in favor of granting Sergio Garcia admission to the bar. California’s success has hinged on the hard work and self-sufficiency of immigrants like Sergio.”
Also supportive was the State Bar, which had found Garcia to have met all the requirements needed to receive a law license. In a statement, President Luis J. Rodriguez said:
"With today's ruling, the California Supreme Court reaffirms the Committee of Bar Examiners' finding as not a political decision but rather one grounded in the law."
In response to criticisms that he doesn't have a right to practice law as someone living illegally in the US, Garcia pointed out that he was a minor — 17 — when he was last brought to the United States. (He first came as an infant but returned to Mexico when he was 9.) He also noted that his being in the U.S. unlawfully is a civil infraction, "so I'm not a criminal."
Garcia, who's application for a green card has been pending for years, said he has worked hard to become a lawyer and wants to inspire young students with his story.
"I want to as help those less fortunate, those who cannot usually afford legal representation and to make sure they're not railroaded by the court system or the insurance companies or whoever it might be," Garcia said. "I'm all for the little guy."
Aside from setting up his law practice, Garcia said he'll be busy getting a book about his life published ("people love a fairytale story") and raising $100,000 in scholarship money for young people through his eponymous foundation.
Niels Frenzen of USC’s School of Law said Garcia's case is important not so much in the number of people it will affect - he doubts there are that many people in Garcia’s shoes - but in the message it sends of California being on the leading edge of immigrant rights.
"It’s certainly is an important statement in this political debate that we’re in the middle of right now regarding people who don’t have legal status and recognizing that there are people like Garcia who are Americans in every sense of the word other than not having that piece of paper," Frenzen said.
To learn more about how the justices made their decision, read the court ruling:
This story has been updated.