In a landmark case, California’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday that an illegal immigrant who has met the requirements to practice law in the state of California must be given a law license.
The man who brought the case, Sergio Garcia, first arrived in the country as a child when he came to the United States with his father to pick almonds. Garcia’s case challenged a 1996 law which blocked illegal immigrants from receiving professional licenses from government agencies, or with the use of public money, unless the state’s lawmakers decided differently.
Garcia’s case goes back to May 2012, when the justices agreed to hear the case. At that time, Garcia had already received backing from the State Bar of California, which found that he had met the rules for admission and his illegal immigrant status would not have any bearing on whether he was qualified. Although, the Justice Department filed briefs stating that he should not get a license, they eventually backed down from this position.
Garcia’s efforts also received support from the California General Assembly, which passed a law last fall stating that an illegal immigrant could be granted a law license. And Gov. Jerry Brown followed through by signing it into law. Because the issue was still pending a decision by the court, the justices did not, however, dismiss the case.
In response to the news of the ruling, Garcia, 36, said, “I’m speechless, tired, relieved. I’m glad it’s over.” Despite the support that Garcia had already received along the way, he felt that the case “could have gone either way” and is “glad California is moving forward…setting a good example for the rest of the country.”
Garcia says that he had to wait more than half his life to become a legal resident of the U.S. When he was just 17 years old, his father, a naturalized citizen from Mexico, sponsored him and he was approved to begin the process of naturalization. However, because there was such a backlog of applications when he applied, a visa “may not become available for many years,” according to the California Supreme Court. The long wait, which is due to end when he gets his green card in 2019, occurred because his father didn’t become a citizen until after Garcia turned 21. Because he was an adult child of a U.S. citizen, this forced him into a decades-long waiting period.
Since Garcia passed the state bar examination in 2009, he has spent his time being a motivational speaker while he awaited the Supreme Court’s decision. He now says, “I think I’m going to continue doing that and fulfill my dream of practicing law.”
The ruling is good news for two other men who are hoping for similar resolutions to their pending cases: Jose Godinez-Samperio, in Florida, and Cesar Vargas, in New York.
According to Vargas, the California Supreme Court’s decisions to allow an illegal immigrant to obtain a law license is “good news” and “a very big precedent.” However, he says that when Garcia and other members of the DREAM Bar Association–an organization composed of other illegal immigrants who hope to become lawyers–are actually sworn in and can practice law, that is when they will truly be excited.
By Nancy Schimelpfening