A Mexican immigrant who is living in the country illegally but had graduated from law school and passed the California bar was granted a law license Thursday by the state’s highest court.
In a unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court granted a motion filed by the state bar’s Committee of Examiners to admit 36-year-old Sergio C. Garcia. Mr. Garcia, who will open his own practice in Chico, Calif., after he is sworn in, can now legally be retained as an attorney in the state, though he cannot be employed by a firm, attorneys representing him said.
In an interview, Mr. Garcia said he was satisfied with the decision, as it was always his intention to practice privately, in the area of civil litigation. Attorneys who represented Mr. Garcia said he is the first attorney living openly in the U.S. as an illegal immigrant granted the right to practice law. Similar cases are before courts in New York and Florida.
“Right now, I am super excited, I am super happy; this has been a long, drawn-out struggle,” Mr. Garcia said. “This case in California serves as a beacon for the rest of the country to follow suit. There really is no national interest for keeping somebody like me from practicing, and paying taxes to their full potential.”
The decision to grant Mr. Garcia a law license came after California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed into state law legislation that specifically allows undocumented immigrants to be admitted as attorneys. That law went into effect Wednesday.
Thursday’s decision by the state Supreme Court, which grants licenses to attorneys in the state, clears the way for admission to the bar of at least one other current applicant in California who is in the country illegally.
At issue in Mr. Garcia’s case was a federal law that prohibits people in the country illegally from obtaining professional licenses. That law had a subsection that allowed states to grant licenses if a state law was passed.
It isn’t clear what impact Mr. Garcia’s case might have beyond California. While the precedent set by the high court in the country’s most populous state is noteworthy, the decision came only after the state legislature acted.
Mr. Garcia was born in Mexico but was brought to the U.S. when he was about 18 months old. He returned to Mexico at the age of nine, and then came back to the U.S. at the age of 17, according to the summary of his case that was part of the court’s opinion. Mr. Garcia’s father filed an immigration visa petition on his son’s behalf in 1994. That application has been pending since 1995, given the visa backlog for individuals from Mexico.
Mr. Garcia graduated from high school, attended college and received his law degree in 2009 from Cal Northern School of Law, passing the bar that same year. After he listed his immigration status as “pending” in his application to the state bar, the bar conducted an investigation into Mr. Garcia and determined the immigrant possessed the “good moral character” to qualify.
Jerome Fishkin, an attorney in Walnut Creek, Calif., who originally took Mr. Garcia’s case pro bono with his wife, Lindsay Slatter, said that it was immediately clear that Mr. Garcia’s immigration status was the main issue, and that Mr. Garcia met all other requirements to be a good attorney.
Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group that wants to reduce the flow of immigrants to the U.S., said the decision was a mockery of the rule of law.
“It conveys or demonstrates once again, how we are not serious about our laws,” Mr. Camarota said.