Undocumented Immigrant Seeks License to Practice Law
Sergio C. Garcia wants to be a lawyer. He’s taken his law school classes and passed the bar in California, but there’s one problem — although he came to the United States from Mexico when he was less than two years old, he is an undocumented immigrant and potentially could be blocked from receiving his license to practice law.
The California Supreme Court heard oral arguments recently over whether the state can admit him to the bar or not.
California wishes to grant him the license. However, the Department of Justice is fighting back, noting that federal law bans giving professional licenses to undocumented people if any state or federal money is involved in the process.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris wrote a brief in Garcia’s favor, arguing that the federal law “does not apply because, although admission to the Bar is surely a professional license, neither of the two statutory qualifications are met. The license to practice law is not provided by ‘an agency of the state,’ but by this Court. Nor is the license provided by ‘appropriated funds of the state;’ instead it is funded by fees paid by its members directly to the State Bar, which is never appropriated by the Legislature.”
”A law license is a professional license,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Tenney shot back in oral arguments. “Congress meant to prohibit all professional licenses.”
Some found other reasons to oppose the licensing. “Garcia is not qualified to practice law because he continually violates federal law by his presence in the United States,” former prosecutor Larry DeSha wrote in a brief.
Garcia’s father became a citizen in 1994, and Garcia has been waiting nearly two decades for his own application for legal status to come through. In the meantime, his professional aspirations lie in the hands of the court. The judges have 90 days to make their decision.
A Difficult Time
There are a few other similar examples of undocumented immigrants seeking law licenses, such as Jose Godinez-Samperio in Florida, who came to the country when he was nine years old.
Even though the Florida Bar specifically requires proof of citizenship, Godinez-Samperio received a waiver, took the test and passed, only to have his eligibility referred to the state Supreme Court. The Court ruled this year that people who are in the country unlawfully cannot get a law license, although Godinez-Samperio argues the decision does specifically apply to his case and has not given up his attempt. Another similar case is pending in New York.
Observers thought the California court was leaning against giving Garcia his license, although nothing is sure until they release their decision.
“The high court seems disinclined to treat lawyers differently than other professions, even though lawyers are uniquely regulated by the high court,” writes John Joseph Steele, an attorney who specializes in legal ethics. “That disinclination reminds me of the recent SCOTUS trend, under the Roberts court, not to treat lawyers differently than other people when construing a federal statute. For a legal ethicist, it’s an oral argument well worth listening to.”
“To have somebody tell you cannot fulfill your American dream after you have done everything that was required of you and complied with every rule that’s out there,” Garcia said to NPR, “It’s a very difficult time and it’s been a trying time”