An undocumented immigrant who graduated from law school and passed the California state bar exam can now practice law, thanks to a California Supreme Court opinion issued on Thursday. Sergio Garcia, a 36-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico, took his case all the way to the state Supreme Court when he was barred from receiving his law license because of his immigration status.
The court opinion hinges in part on a 1996 federal anti-immigration law which prohibits undocumented immigrants from receiving professional licenses like those issued to lawyers and teachers, but leaves it up to the state to “render an undocumented immigrant eligible to obtain such a professional license through the enactment of a state law.” In October 2013, Governor Jerry Brown (D-CA) signed a law allowing the California Supreme Court to issue law licenses to individuals, regardless of immigration status, which helped set the path for Thursday’s ruling. The court found that the law allowed Garcia’s admission to the state bar.
The opinion states in part, “The new statute … reflects that the Legislature and the Governor have concluded that the admission of an undocumented immigrant who has met all the qualifications for admission to the State Bar is fully consistent with this state’s public policy, and, as this opinion explains, we find no basis to disagree with that conclusion.”
The court opinion comes as a personal victory for Garcia who has fought for his law license for more than a year, and it also adds to California’s immigrant-friendly record. What’s more, the opinion may set a precedent for other court cases underway in Florida and New York where undocumented immigrants are also fighting for their law licenses. Still, under federal law, law firms cannot legally hire him.
Cesar Vargas, an undocumented immigrant from New York who is in a comparable conundrum after passing his bar exam, told ThinkProgress that he was optimistic the ruling could pressure the New York Appellate Division Second Judicial Department, which will likely make a decision this month. But because the issuance of professional licenses is up to each state, Vargas also said, “We will keep fighting not only in New York and Florida, but also in other states where many other [Dreamers] are graduating law school.”