California court grants undocumented immigrant right to practice law

State Supreme Court decision based on new law that allows attorneys to be admitted even if 'not lawfully present'

In this Sept. 3, 2013, photo, Sergio Garcia poses for photographs in San Francisco.
Jeff Chiu/AP

In a closely watched case on immigration rights, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that an undocumented immigrant should be licensed to practice law.

The unanimous ruling in favor of Sergio Garcia came after California legislators passed a bill last year that authorized the high court to allow qualified applicants into the state bar, regardless of their immigration status.

Garcia was brought to the U.S. by his family as an infant without inspection or documentation by immigration officials, according to a press release by the Supreme Court of California. His parents took him back to Mexico when he was 9 years old, but Garcia returned to California at age 17 and has been living here ever since.

In 1994, after returning to the U.S., Garcia's father, who had obtained lawful permanent residence status, filed an immigration visa petition for his son. The petition was accepted by federal immigration officials in January 1995.

Under federal immigration law, the visa petition provides Garcia with a basis for adjustment of his immigration status to that of a lawful permanent resident when a legal immigration opening becomes available. But Garcia has been waiting for more than 19 years, and it could be years still until one becomes available because of the backlog of people of Mexican origin waiting for lawful entry to the U.S.

A federal law passed by Congress in 1996 forbids undocumented immigrants from receiving professional licenses. But Garcia's lawyers argued that law licenses, which are granted by courts and not government agencies, were meant to be exempt from the federal law.

After an extensive investigation into Garcia's background, the California's Committee of Bar Examiners decided he had the "good moral character" to be admitted. 

And when the new bill allowing undocumented immigrants to be admitted to the state bar became law on Wednesday, Garcia was officially admitted.  

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a series of immigrant-rights bills last October, including a measure that prohibits law enforcement officials from detaining immigrants based on federal government instructions except in cases of serious crimes or convictions. Another law makes it illegal for employers to retaliate against workers on the basis of their citizenship.

The California decision comes as landmark legislation took effect Wednesday in Nevada that allows undocumented immigrants to drive legally.

Starting Thursday, the state's Department of Motor Vehicles will begin issuing driver authorization cards for residents who cannot meet citizenship requirements for a standard driver's license. The law prohibits the DMV from sharing information for immigration enforcement purposes.

The measure was signed into law in 2013 by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, Nevada's first governor of Hispanic descent.

Nevada becomes one of 13 states and the District of Columbia with programs or plans to offer similar cards.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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