Sergio C. Garcia: Supreme Court Hears Case of Immigrant Lawyer Fighting for Admission to Cal State Bar

Sergio C. Garcia
Sergio C. Garcia, a 36-year-old Chico man who came to the U.S. illegally as an infant, has spent the last 19 years of his life in a vexing, seemingly horizon-less legal limbo. After gaining U.S. citizenship in 1994, Garcia's father requested an immigrant visa for his son, which was approved in 1995. Nearly two decades hence, Garcia is still waiting, in undocumented status, for a visa to become available.

During that interim he attended college, finished law school, passed the Cal State Bar Exam, received a positive moral character assessment from the Committee of Bar Examiners, and was told he could be sworn into practice law.

But then state bar officials retracted their invite, after the California Supreme Court demanded that it show cause for licensing an undocumented immigrant. With a similar case pending in Florida, immigration status has become a hot-button issue in state bar admissions. Many legal experts believe that no matter what his qualifications, Garcia will still face major hurdles when the Supreme Court hears his case tomorrow in San Francisco.

That said, Garcia has a stout offense in the form of California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who is not involved in the case but nonetheless filed a friend-of-the-court brief on his behalf. Pointing out that Garcia has spent the bulk of his life living, working, and paying taxes in the U.S., Harris also noted that the state Supreme Court has sole authority to regulate bar admissions, and that no law prohibits it from admitting Garcia, in this case. Hers was the first in a flurry of similarly sympathetic briefs, submitted by the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union, La Raza Lawyers Association of Sacramento, and the California Latino Legislative Caucus, among others.

But the U.S. Department of Justice still considers Garcia an "illegal alien," and it asserted as much in its own amicus curiae, which cites immigration laws that ban undocumented residents from receiving state benefits. Acting Assistant Attorney General Stuart Delery pointed out that even if the court is a sovereign entity, it's still funded by federal and state appropriations. Neither the court nor the bar has reason to consider Garcia's employment at all, Delery writes, since Congress has already legislated that possibility out of existence.

Yet the bigger question looming behind Garcia's case is why any immigrant with an approved visa application should have to wait two decades to become a productive member of society. Evidently, the immigration case backlog is also a matter of federal dollars -- or lack thereof. While new immigration reform proposals promise temporary legal status to millions of immigrants, they won't affect the millions still waiting in line. As of February there were 1,311,960 family-based visa applications still languishing from Garcia's home country of Mexico, according to reports from the Oakland-based immigration law firm Bean & Lloyd LLP.

Right now Garcia is helping his father as a beekeeper, situating himself within the family lineage of migrant farming and field working. He's still optimistic that the Supreme Court will take his side after hearing his case tomorrow. He's at least hoping not to squander a full college and law school education that he bankrolled himself, by bagging groceries.

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