UT San Diego: Court Grants Unauthorized Immigrant Law License

January 02, 2014

By: Michael Gardner

— The California Supreme Court relied heavily on legislation carried by San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez in its landmark unanimous ruling Thursday that clears the way for people here illegally to qualify for a law license.

In doing so, the court made California the first state in the nation to admit unauthorized immigrants to a State Bar and appeared to open the door for lawmakers to advance similar rights for doctors, pharmacists, architects and others who require special licenses.

California’s new law, the court said, “reflects that the Legislature and the governor have concluded that there is no state law or state public policy that would justify denying qualified undocumented immigrants, as a class, the opportunity to obtain admission to the State Bar.”

Gonzalez hailed the decision for setting a course for “hardworking young immigrants who have done everything right but through no fault of their own” cannot achieve legal status.

The case was brought by Sergio Garcia of Chico, who passed the bar exam but was later rejected for admission on the grounds that he was not authorized to be in the country.

Garcia, who was born in Mexico in 1977, was brought to California by his parents just a year later. They returned to Mexico when he was nine-years-old, but then came back to the U.S. in 1994. His father later obtained permanent legal status.

But the younger Garcia’s application for lawful residency has not been approved because of a backlog, according to the court. Meanwhile, he attended California schools and received his law degree from Cal Northern School of Law in Chico in 2009.

He took the bar exam that summer, passing it on his first try. Garcia had acknowledged that his immigration status was pending on his State Bar application, but a review committee questioned whether it could admit him and rescinded his license two weeks after he had taken the oath. That triggered a court review. Subsequently, two other similar examples have been uncovered.

Gonzalez, daughter of immigrants and a lawyer herself, took up the cause along with fellow Democrats after winning a special election for the Assembly last year. There had been signals from the courts and State Bar that a change in California law would be needed for the Supreme Court to allow Garcia to practice law.

Gonzalez’s legislation sailed through on big bipartisan votes and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it. The measure went into effect one day before the Supreme Court acted.

Critics argued that the state should not extend more rights to those in the country illegally, and that federal law prohibits unauthorized immigrants from becoming lawyers.

Larry DeSha, a retired attorney from Camarillo who once investigated ethics complaints for the State Bar, was one of those asking the court to block Garcia’s application, citing a half-dozen points keyed on clashes with federal law.

In an interview Thursday, DeSha said he had not read the ruling yet and noted he favored a pathway to citizenship for people like Garcia. But he was adamant about ensuring that laws are not circumvented. The case, he said, is more political than one of law.

DeSha noted that federal law would prohibit an unauthorized immigrant for being paid and clients would be in violation of the law if they sign contracts with a lawyer in this country illegally.

Moreover, DeSha said in court documents that Garcia as a “deportable legal alien for several years to come is subject to arrest and removal.” That status would interfere with his ability to serve his clients — a violation of his duty.

The law also “precludes the admission of Mr. Garcia because it requires an oath to support the federal immigration lats to the best of his ability. Mr. Garcia cannot take the oath of office because he has no intention of complying with the federal immigration laws until several years from now (when he is eligible for legal status),” DeSha said in his filing.

The court’s ruling answered some of those questions related to federal law, which were also highlighted by the U.S. Department of Justice in opposing granting Garcia his license.

“No federal statute precludes a state from issuing a law license to an undocumented immigrant,” the court said.

The court did suggest that unauthorized immigrants could not be hired at law firms because that would be a violation of a federal ban on hiring those in the country illegally.

That point was made in the legislation, justices said. “As this bill analysis accurately recognizes, this court’s granting of a law license to undocumented immigrants would not override or otherwise affect the federal limitations.”

Continued the court to say that “the inability to represent California residents in some legal matters does not necessarily preclude all possible uses of a law license.”

Also, the court said it would be “very unlikely” federal authorities would deport someone like Garcia.

Garcia did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

The ruling affects only the State Bar and not other professions.

But Gonzalez said she would consider introducing subsequent bills depending on whether there are specific cases of doctors, pharmacists or other professionals being denied licenses based on their residency status.

Federal law requires that each be tackled individually so the state has been unable to craft comprehensive legislation for all professional licenses, she said. If there are security issues, Gonzalez said it might be wiser to keep the law as is.

“I want to make sure we have a real live case that we can pass, get signed into law and people are comfortable with it,” Gonzalez said. “We want to address problems that actually exist.”

Her Assembly Bill 1024 was one of several bills signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last year that expand rights for unauthorized immigrants, most of which went into effect Jan. 1.

The legislation included the “Trust Act” that prohibits local police from turning over to federal immigration authorities those suspected of minor crimes. Those here illegally will also be able to obtain a driver’s license once DMV crafts the rules by Jan. 1, 2015. Other measures provide protections from employer retaliation and a Gonzalez bill to safeguard immigrants from unscrupulous lawyers and consultants claiming they can secure residency permits.

CONTACT THE REPORTER: Michael Gardner at mike.gardner@utsandiego.com or (916) 445-2934