The California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that an undocumented immigrant can obtain a law license in an unprecedented decision Thursday that could impact immigrants across the country.
The ruling grants Sergio Garcia the right to practice law in California, his home for a total of almost three decades since his family first brought him lawfully from Mexico when he was a toddler. The 36-year-old is now the first undocumented immigrant able to practice law in the United States in a landmark decision that could influence two similar cases, one in New York and another in Florida.
Garcia challenged a federal statute that prevents undocumented immigrants from obtaining professional licenses from government agencies. After the state’s Supreme Court heard oral arguments in September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a state law that grants law licenses to undocumented immigrants who had met all the standard requirements. The new law went into effect Jan. 1.
“Although the new California statute reflects that the legislature and the governor have concluded that there is no state law or state public policy that justifies denying undocumented immigrants, as a class, the opportunity to obtain admission to the State Bar,” wrote the court in a press release.
What remains unclear is whether Garcia will be able to get a job. He graduated from law school and passed California’s state bar exam on his first try in 2009. However under federal law, Garcia is barred from working at a law firm as companies are prohibited from hiring undocumented immigrants.
“We assume that a licensed undocumented immigrant will make all necessary inquiries and take appropriate steps to comply with applicable legal restrictions and will advise potential clients of any possible adverse or limiting effect the attorney’s immigration status may pose,” the court said.
Garcia told NBC News that he is “speechless, tired, relieved,” and is “glad it’s over.” Garcia lived in California until he was nine years old, and was brought back to Chico, Mexico, by his parents. He then returned to the United States when he was 17 years old and worked in the fields and at a grocery store while attending school. After attending community college, he became a paralegal, received his law degree from Cal Northern School of Law in 2009, and passed the state’s bar exam.
Garcia applied for citizenship in 1994, and is still undergoing the process.
The court noted that Garcia’s record demonstrates that he “possesses the requisite good moral character to qualify for a law license,” and that he is “a diligent and trusted worker who has made significant contributions to his community.”