Law
3:25 am
Tue October 8, 2013

Calif. Law Allows Undocumented Immigrants To Practice Law

Originally published on Tue October 8, 2013 11:32 am

Sergio Garcia passed the California Bar exam four years ago. The bar granted Garcia a law license, but then rescinded it because he was undocumented.

The justices of the California Supreme Court may have been sympathetic to Garcia, but it quickly became clear during arguments they didn't think the law was on his side. Specifically, as the U.S. Department of Justice argued, federal law prevented Garcia's admission to the bar.

But then, there was this question from Justice Goodwin Liu: "Given that we all agree here that state courts are the ones that issue law licenses, could an enactment of the state legislature provide eligibility for a law license?"

The Justice Department's Daniel Tenney answered, "We don't think there would be any federal prohibition on the issuance of such a law license."

"So that is your position?" Liu asked.

"That would be an outlet if the state enacted such legislation," Tenney responded.

The case hit a nerve with state legislators. Garcia had moved to the United States as a child and was approved for a green card nearly 19 years ago, but has been on a waiting list since.

Shortly after the court's arguments, the legislative Latino caucus introduced a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to practice law. Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly voted for it, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law.

"This is my life's dream come true," Garcia says. "One of two. I'm going for the U.S. citizenship next. I want to be a full part of this country."

Garcia's case is not quite over. The California Supreme Court still has to issue a final decision on whether he may practice law. Garcia and his lawyers say they fully expect the court to grant that permission.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's return now to a story we've been following here on MORNING EDITION which has taken a dramatic turn - a new law that would allow undocumented immigrants to practice law here in California. It all began with a case before the State Supreme Court involving an undocumented immigrant named Sergio Gargia, who is fighting to get his lawyer's license. Early on in the court proceedings, it wasn't looking good for Garcia. Then, as Emily Green reports, something unlikely happened.

EMILY GREEN, BYLINE: Sergio Garcia passed the California Bar exam four years ago. The bar granted Garcia a law license but then rescinded it because he was undocumented. The justices of the California Supreme Court may have been sympathetic to Garcia, but it quickly became clear during oral argument they didn't think the law was on his side. Specifically, as the U.S. Department of Justice argued, federal law prevented Garcia's admission to the bar.

But then there was this question from Justice Goodwin Liu.

(SOUNDBITE OF COURT HEARING)

JUSTICE GOODWIN LIU: Given that we all agree here that state courts are the ones that issue law licenses, could an enactment of the state legislature provide eligibility for a law license?

GREEN: And this response from the Justice Department's Daniel Tenney.

(SOUNDBITE OF COURT HEARING)

DANIEL TENNEY: We don't think there would be any federal prohibition on the issuance of such a license.

LIU: So that is your position.

TENNEY: That would be an outlet if the state enacted such legislation.

GREEN: The case hit a nerve with state legislators. Garcia had moved to the United States as a child and was approved for a green card nearly 19 years ago, but he's has been on a waiting list to get it ever since. Shortly after oral argument, the state legislators' Latino caucus introduced a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to practice law. Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly voted for it, and now Governor Jerry Brown has signed it into law. Garcia was ecstatic.

SERGIO GARCIA: This is my life's dream come true. One of two. I'm going for the U.S. citizenship next. I want to be a full part of this country.

GREEN: Garcia's case is not quite over. The California Supreme Court still has to issue a final decision on whether he can practice law. Garcia and his lawyers say they fully expect the court to say he can. And with thousands of immigrants making their way through college and law school, the new California law could affect many more lives in the years to come. For NPR News, I'm Emily Green in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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