After years of waiting, the California Supreme Court finally made a decision that allows undocumented immigrants to be admitted to the State Bar. Sergio Garcia passed the California State Bar Exam on his first try in 2009, but when his application to be admitted to the bar was denied, it was the beginning of a long battle that has ultimately ended in his favor.
The California’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday that no state law or public policy should stop Garcia or others like him from obtaining a law license in the state. Immigration officials would be unlikely to pursue sanctions against an undocumented immigrant who had been living in the United States for years, had been educated in this country and whose sole unlawful conduct was his presence in this country, the court said in a unanimous ruling written by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
“Under these circumstances, we conclude that the fact that an undocumented immigrant’s presence in this country violates federal statutes is not itself a sufficient or persuasive basis for denying undocumented immigrants, as a class, admission to the State Bar,” the court ruled.
Sergio Garcia’s case is unique because, while it is admitted that he is an undocumented alien in the U.S., he has an approved immigrant visa petition filed by his father back in 1995. Unfortunately, after 19 years of waiting so far, a green card is still unavailable to him. The California Supreme Court’s ruling said, “Because the current backlog of persons of Mexican origin who are seeking immigrant visas is so large, as of the date of this opinion — more than 19 years after Garcia’s visa petition was filed — a visa number still has not become available for Garcia,”
The matter ended up in the California state court system, and Garcia earned the support of California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who wrote in a 2012 brief: “Admitting Garcia to the bar would be consistent with state and federal policy that encourages immigrants, both documented and undocumented, to contribute to society.”
The state bar argued that Garcia had met all of California’s requirements for a law license.
“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,” California State Bar President Luis J. Rodriguez said in a written statement Thursday.
Critics have argued that giving Garcia a license wouldn’t make sense. How can someone without legal status become licensed as a lawyer, whose job entails upholding the law? Larry DeSha, former prosecutor for the State Bar of California, said Garcia shouldn’t be given his law license because his immigration status would be in violation of a civil immigration statute and could affect his ability to represent his clients.
“In the immigration debate, we must separate the individual from the idea. The individual — Garcia — looks like a keeper. The idea — that one who has lived most of his life outside the law can practice law — is problematic,” Navarrette wrote in his September column. The executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tighter immigration restrictions, said the case is part of a troubling trend. “The ruling that an unlawful immigrant can be admitted to the practice of law in California is the kind of thing that will light up talk-show switchboards, and rightly so. But beyond the Bizarro World nature of the decision is a broader issue,” Mark Krikorian wrote in an editorial published on the National Review’s website. “This is only the latest in a series of measures by some jurisdictions to normalize illegal immigration.”
The Obama administration originally opposed Garcia’s admission to the bar, saying that federal law demanded that legislation be enacted granting an undocumented immigrant the right to practice, but the Justice Department backed off in November after California’s governor signed a new law that did just that. The bill, which passed in October and went into effect this week, allows the bar to admit “an applicant who is not lawfully present in the United States (who) has fulfilled the requirements for admission to practice law.”
That “greased the skids” in making the court’s work easier, said Dan Kowalski, editor of Bender’s Immigration Bulletin and himself an immigration attorney. “I think it’s a natural, logical decision,” he told CNN in a telephone interview, adding that he expected other states to follow suit. Víctor Nieblas, an immigration attorney based in Southern California, told CNN in September that the court’s decision could affect hundreds of other young professionals in the United States who are seeking a license.
“He’s the first, but he’s not the only. There are cases going on in New York and Florida,” said Rina Gandhi, a third-year law student at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Gandhi, who heads an immigration law and service organization that invited Garcia to speak at her school last year, said the ruling is a positive step. “I’m glad to see us moving forward in the right direction,” she said, adding that the case highlights the problems caused by backlogs in the country’s immigration system. “He does have an immigration application pending,” she said. “It’s more a result of the broken immigration system that we currently have that he’s been waiting 19 years.”
While this decision marks a step in helping those who seek to be a part of a noble profession like the legal profession, it also highlights the issues surrounding a person’s status in the U.S. and the difficult position it puts that person in with moving forward with their lives. The California Supreme Court’s decision is a temporary remedy for Sergio Garcia’s current situation since it remains to be seen when his own immigration issue will finally be resolved. For now, Sergio Garcia and others like him get to practice law without worrying about practicing without a license anymore.