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State high court says qualified undocumented immigrants can practice law

The state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that California’s undocumented immigrants are eligible to practice law if they meet licensing requirements — even though they are not citizens.

The court’s decision involved Sergio C. Garcia, an undocumented immigrant from Chico who passed all qualifying state exams and was seeking a license to practice law in California. Arguments in the case were heard last year.

During that time in September, Assembly member Lorena Gonzales (D-San Diego) made end-of-session amendments to a bill she was carrying to remove any federal barriers blocking undocumented immigrants like Garcia from admission to the State Bar, which regulates lawyers in California. Gov. Brown signed Gonzales’s bill in October; it took effect on New Year’s Day.

Garcia’s immigration visa petition was accepted by federal immigration officials in January 1995 but current federal law limits the number of visas distributed each year based on an applicant’s country of origin, making an extensive backlog for persons of Mexican origin.

The ultimate authority for deciding who gets admitted to the State Bar falls on the California Supreme Court. In today’s decision,  the courts granted a motion filed by the Committee of Bar Examiners to admit Garcia — making him the first undocumented immigrant to practice law in California.

“This ruling gives tangible hope to the many hard-working, young members of our immigrant community, who, under no fault of their own, have been caught in the middle of a broken immigration system,” wrote Gonzales in a statement quickly following the court’s ruling.

More than 19 years after his petition was filed, the court stated Garcia still hadn’t received a visa number and one may not become available for many years.

Garcia who was born in Mexico in 1977 and brought to California when he was 17 months old.

Garcia’s immigration visa petition was accepted by federal immigration officials in January 1995 but current federal law limits the number of visas distributed each year based on an applicant’s country of origin, making an extensive backlog for persons of Mexican origin.

More than 19 years after his petition was filed, the court stated Garcia still hadn’t received a visa number and one may not become available for many years.

The court’s unanimous decision, authored by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, found “objections lack merit and that there is no state law or state public policy that would justify precluding undocumented immigrants, as a class, from obtaining a law license in California.”


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