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State Board Report

January 2014

Thanks to a California law which went into effect on January 1, 2014, Sergio Garcia, an illegal immigrant, was granted a law license by the California Supreme Court on January 2. The Court unanimously ruled 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.” Mr. Garcia, 36, was born in Mexico, brought into the United States as a 17 month-old, taken back to Mexico between the ages of nine and 17, and then returned to California in 1994, graduating from Cal Northern School of Law in 2009 and passing the state bar examination that year. Similarly, illegal immigrants in Florida (Jose Manuel Godinez-Samperio) and New York (Cesar Vargas) also have cases working through the courts to allow them to become lawyers.

Former Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau explained in an opinion piece in the December 23, 2013 Wall Street Journal, as part of the 1966 federal Personal Responsibility and Opportunity Act, states participating in the program are required to withhold state professional and occupational licenses from undocumented immigrants. “But the law also provided a way to get around the prohibition,” Mr. Morgenthau writes. “If a state legislature passed a law specifically authorizing licensing of undocumented immigrants, then the federal prohibition would have no effect.”

Although in 2012 the U.S. Justice Department opposed Mr. Garcia’s being licensed, the Department “conceded that the California legislature could overrule the prohibition by enacting a single statute,” Mr. Morgenthau points out. The Justice Department had argued that because the court’s entire budget comes from the public treasury, it would be a violation of the federal mandate to spend public money to grant licenses to those in the U.S. illegally.

Mr. Morgenthau recommends: “The New York legislature should pass, and the governor should sign, a law allowing qualified immigrants to be admitted to the professions of their choice.”

“While Washington waffles on immigration, California’s forging ahead,” Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr., said when he signed the immigration legislation in October. “I’m not waiting,” he stated. California’s AB 0124 applies specifically to applicants to be admitted as attorneys at law, no other professions.

Mr. Garcia can now hang out a shingle to practice law in California, but whether or not he can appear in federal court or in another state’s court is not clear. The Associated Press reports that federal law makes it illegal for law firms to hire him.

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