The California Supreme Court will take up a case Wednesday that could determine whether or not undocumented immigrants can legally practice law. Sergio Garcia, a 36-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico, started out picking almonds in a field with his father as a teenager and worked at a grocery store to pay for community college and law school. In 2009, Garcia passed the California bar exam on his first try. The California bar accepted him, but the U.S. Department of Justice revoked his law license, citing his immigration status.
Though his father and most of his siblings are now citizens, Garcia has been waiting nearly 20 years for legal status — a typical waiting period for Mexican immigrants. He was brought to the U.S. as an infant by his parents and, after attending school in Mexico, permanently rejoined his family in Durham, CA at the age of 17. Though his attorney’s license is in limbo, Garcia owns a company that offers paralegal and other legal support services, and makes money as a motivational speaker.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris backs Garcia’s quest, writing that his admission to the bar is “consistent with state and federal policy that encourages immigrants, both documented and undocumented, to contribute to society.”
Even if the Supreme Court rules in his favor, Garcia cannot be legally hired by any law firm or other company. He plans to open his own law practice, but would be severely limited in the kinds of clients and cases he can take on.
Other undocumented immigrants in Garcia’s position are watching the court closely. Jose-Godinez Samperio of Florida is currently waiting for the Florida Supreme Court to decide whether or not he can be admitted to the bar. Another immigrant who wants to practice law in New York has also filed a brief supporting Garcia’s cause.
Their predicament stems from a 1996 federal law banning entities that receive state funds from granting professional licenses to undocumented immigrants. As a result, millions of undocumented people living in the U.S. cannot aspire to any profession requiring a license — lawyers, doctors, nurses, dentists, engineers, architects, contractors, accountants, and teachers all need licenses — even if they are qualified.
Despite this law, more professional schools are opening their doors to undocumented applicants. In July, Loyola University’s School of Medicine in Chicago, IL became the first medical school to accept applications from undocumented immigrants in response to the Obama administration’s initiative granting legal status to undocumented youths.
Still, these lucrative professions are out of reach for most undocumented immigrants. At a median household income of $36,000 a year, most immigrant households cannot even afford tuition for college, let alone for professional degrees. Most states withhold in-state tuition and financial aid from undocumented students, and some even forbid them from enrolling in public universities altogether. As a result, just five to ten percent of undocumented students attend college, compared to 75 percent of their classmates. A third of undocumented immigrants work in low-wage service jobs, as janitors, waiters, busboys, or house cleaners. Just ten percent have professional positions.
But those who can afford higher education and excel in their field will find themselves frustrated by institutional barriers. Professional licenses are a gateway to specialized professions, stability, and higher incomes (bumping wages up 15 to 18 percent). Keeping that gateway closed traps an entire workforce of highly skilled immigrants in low-wage or dead-end jobs.