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California bar: Illegal immigrant should get law license


Courtesy of Sergio Garcia

A California State Bar committee is recommending that Sergio Garcia, an illegal immigrant, receive a law license in a first-ever case for the California Supreme Court that could affect others like him who hope to follow in his footsteps.

Updated at 445 p.m. ET -- An illegal immigrant applying for a law license in California should be allowed to receive it, the State Bar of California argues in a filing to the state Supreme Court.

Sergio Garcia, 35, of Chico, Calif., has met the rules for admission, including passing the bar exam and the moral character review, and his lack of legal status in the United States should not automatically disqualify him, the Committee of Bar Examiners said Monday.

“ … Mr. Garcia’s status in the United States, should not, ipso facto, be grounds for excluding him from law licensure. He has met all of the prescribed qualifications and there is no reason to believe he cannot take the oath and faithfully uphold his duties as an attorney,” the bar said.

Garcia's father is a naturalized citizen, according to the bar, and Garcia is waiting for a visa that would give him legal permanent residency. His application for a law license is being weighed by the court because his case is unprecedented in the state, the bar committee said.

A similar case is being heard in Florida for a bar applicant in that state, Jose Godinez-Samperio, who came from Mexico to the United States as a child with his parents and overstayed a tourist visa. How justices rule in the cases in California and Florida could affect other illegal immigrants who hope to follow in their footsteps.

Some 11.5 million “unauthorized immigrants,” as the Department of Homeland Security calls illegal immigrants, lived in the United States as of January 2011. Of that, 6.8 million were from Mexico, like Garcia, according to the department’s Office of Immigration Statistics. On Friday, President Barack Obama announced that some of the immigrants who came to the country as children – and met other requirements -- would be able to get two-year work permits. He also called on immigration officials to halt deportation proceedings against them.

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Garcia, who attended law school and college in California, does not fit in that group because he is over the age limit of 30, but he is nonetheless overjoyed for those who do. He has been waiting nearly 18 years for a visa, though his petition for it was approved in 1995, the bar said.

“That’s the state of our immigration system … our immigration system is broken,” Garcia told msnbc.com, estimating he will have to wait another five years for the visa. “It’s really painful.”

A decision on his bar application could still be at least months away for Garcia. Others now have one month to submit their own legal filings in the case, and then the state bar would have another month to reply to those, the court said.

“I have always been an eternal optimist so this (bar recommendation) does give me hope,” Garcia, who submitted his application to the bar in 2009, told msnbc.com. “I have faith that my dream of being an attorney will be realized sooner rather than later.”

In the filing, the bar committee said it was not aware of any statute, regulation or authority that would preclude his admission. It noted that Garcia’s employability in the U.S. should not determine whether he gets a license, citing the cases of foreign students who can get admitted to the California bar but may not stay in the country to practice law afterward.

“ … the grant of a law license provides no guarantee of a pathway to lawful employment in the United States for these individuals,” the bar committee said. “What Mr. Garcia, or any other foreign applicant, does with his license after licensure must comport with federal regulations and that is a matter strictly between him and the federal government.”

Former Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno, who supports Garcia’s application, said that the court was the ultimate authority on attorney admissions in the state and would likely establish a rule in this case that would apply to similar ones in the future.

But the possibility that undocumented immigrants could receive law licenses doesn’t sit well with some.

“I think that’s ridiculous,” said Marilyn DeYoung, chairman of Californians for Population Stabilization, which advocates for secure borders and allowing fewer immigrants into the country.  “First of all, they are defying the law of America by being here illegally so, and now they want to be a lawyer and to practice American law. I think that’s really sort of stupid that our California bar would recommend that.”

While DeYoung said she could sympathize with Garcia’s long wait for his visa and she wouldn’t be unhappy if an exception was made for him, she expressed concern that a general rule could come out of this case that would allow any illegal immigrant to get a license.

“We would definitely oppose that,” she said. “This is, we feel, is not right.”

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