Max Whittaker/Prime / for NBC News
Sergio Garcia is seen in Chico, Calif., April 2, 2013. Despite a law school degree and passing the state bar exam, as an undocumented immigrant, Garcia was not allowed to practice law by the state until the ruling today.
An undocumented immigrant who has met the requirements to practice law in California must be given a legal license, the state’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a landmark case that could set a national precedent.
The California Supreme Court ruled that Sergio Garcia, who first came to the United States from Mexico unlawfully as a child, must receive his license — the first decision of its kind in the U.S. that could affect other undocumented immigrants who hope to follow in his footsteps. Two similar cases are pending in Florida and New York.
"I'm speechless, tired, relieved," Garcia, 36, said moments after the ruling came down. "I'm glad it's over."
The court case dates back to May 2012, when the justices said they would hear the case. Garcia won initial backing from the State Bar of California, which determined that he had met the rules for admission and his lack of legal status in the United States should not automatically disqualify him. But the Justice Department initially filed briefs saying Garcia should not get a license – a stance it later backed away from.
Garcia also got support from the California State Legislature, which passed a law last fall saying undocumented immigrants like him could get their law licenses. Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law, but the matter was pending before the court, and the justices did not dismiss the case.
"The court has been extremely, extremely conservative," Garcia said. "We fought hard. We had incredible victories last year [with the State Legislature]."
Still, he said, Thursday's ruling "could have gone either way."
"I never in my life imagined it would take me longer to win my right to practice than it took to actually get my degree," Garcia said. "I’m glad California is moving forward and I think we’re setting a good example for the rest of the country."
Garcia has waited more than half his life to get legal residency in the U.S.: his dad, a naturalized citizen from Mexico, sponsored him, and he was approved to begin the naturalization process in 1995 at age 17. But due to the backlog of applications, his visa had not been granted, and, according to the California Supreme Court, a visa "may not become available for many years."
But since his dad didn’t become a citizen until after Garcia turned 21, Garcia was put in the decades-long line for a green card for adult children of U.S. citizens. He is slated to get his green card in 2019.
Since passing the California bar examination in 2009, as he awaited permission to be a lawyer, Garcia has been a motivational speaker.
"I think I'm going to continue doing that and fulfill my dream of practicing law," he said.
In a press release regarding its decision, the court noted that since he had moved permanently to California at the age of 17, Garcia has gone to college, completed law school, passed the bar, and been a "diligent and trusted worker who has made significant contributions to his community."
Garcia's ruling raises hopes for two other similar cases across the country.
Jose Godinez-Samperio, 27, an immigrant in Florida who applied for a law license, is waiting on the Florida State Supreme Court to decide whether he can be admitted to the bar. (Godinez-Samperio's status on hold under the deferred action for a childhood arrival rules in the U.S.) In April, the court dismissed a motion on whether he could practice law.
After hearing the ruling in Garcia's case, Godinez-Samperio said he was "absolutely psyched and excited and happy."
"It gives me a lot of hope. Now we will tell the court here in Florida what happened in California, and I hope the court will make a similar decision in my case," he said.
And in New York, Cesar Vargas, 30, who has also passed the bar exam and is undocumented, is waiting on the State Supreme Court's appellate division to rule on whether he can practice law.
Garcia's case is "great news for all of us," Vargas said on Thursday, referring to the members of the DREAM Bar Association, a nationwide group of undocumented immigrants hoping to being able to practice law.
"Today really adds momentum to what the courts should do soon," he said. "It's a very big precedent. But until we actually see Sergio and all the other members of the DREAM Bar Association actually be sworn in at their ceremony, that's when we'll truly be excited."
Mark Krikorian, the executive director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports tighter controls on immigration, was outraged by the ruling.
"It's an absurdity, an illegal immigrant made an officer of the court," he said. "This is one more step toward eliminating the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants."
- Waiting half a life for a green card: Families languish in immigration line
- California bar: Illegal immigrant should get law license
This story was originally published on Thu Jan 2, 2014 1:15 PM EST