Calif. Court Admits Undocumented Immigrant to Bar

, The Recorder

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Sergio Garcia
Sergio Garcia speaks at The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles in August 2013. The California Supreme Court on Thursday granted a law license to Garcia, even though he is living in the United States illegally.

SAN FRANCISCO - Sergio Garcia's status as an undocumented immigrant has hung up his admission to the State Bar for more than three years.

But on Thursday, just one day after a new state law on undocumented immigrants took effect, the California Supreme Court took action, ordering Garcia admitted and paving the way for others in his situation to become attorneys in good standing.

The decision could reverberate in New York, where at least one undocumented immigrant has passed the bar exam and applied for admission.

"We conclude the fact that an undocumented immigrant is present in the United States without lawful authorization does not itself involve moral turpitude or demonstrate moral unfitness so as to justify exclusion from the State Bar," California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote for a unanimous court. Nor does it "prevent the individual from taking an oath promising faithfully to discharge the duty to support the Constitution and laws of the United States and California."

How Garcia might lawfully practice without violating federal immigration law is an open question the court left for another day. Garcia plans to hang out a shingle and do plaintiffs personal injury; the Supreme Court described the legality of such an arrangement as "ambiguous."

The only bone of contention among the justices was how to describe Garcia, a native of the Mexican state of Michoacan who spent half his childhood and all of his adult life in California. Cantil-Sakauye used the phrase "undocumented immigrant," prompting Justice Ming Chin to file a short separate concurrence pointing out that the court deliberately chose just three years ago to use "unlawful alien."

Thursday's decision in In re Garcia is the culmination of a personal journey that began around 2005 when Garcia enrolled in night classes at Cal Northern School of Law in Chico.

"The immigration system is broken, everyone knows it," said Jerome Fishkin of Walnut Creek's Fishkin & Slatter, who represented Garcia through most of his case. "This is one small piece in putting the puzzle back together, particularly for immigrant children."

The California Supreme Court noted it has at least one other application pending from an undocumented immigrant, and a law professor who helped brief the case says more are likely.

Bill Ong Hing, who has taught law at Golden Gate University, Stanford, UC-Davis and now University of San Francisco, said he's encountered students at each school who've revealed their undocumented status to him. "I personally know some attorneys who are undocumented," he added. "The question never came up in the application process."

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