California Allows Undocumented Immigrants to Practice Law

By William Peacock, Esq. on October 08, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

With a few signatures from Governor Jerry Brown, California may have just become the most immigrant-friendly state in the country. On Saturday, Gov. Brown signed a package of bills reducing the state's cooperation with federal deportation programs, giving undocumented immigrants the right to obtain driver's licenses, and most important for our purposes, allowing undocumented immigrants to practice law, so long as the other requirements of bar admission are met.

While the legislation should have far-reaching effects across the state, it will be especially good news for one 36-year-old man, who has been waiting for a green card since the age of 17, and who passed the bar in 2009, yet is still waiting to practice law. Sergio Garcia's case ended up in the California Supreme Court last month, but with the new legislation, the case may be moot.

Sergio Garcia at the Supreme Court

The bar admission legislation was passed in response to the case of Sergio Garcia, the outlook of which looked grim only one month ago when he appeared before the California Supreme Court. According to NPR, the judges, while sympathetic to Garcia, seemed to agree that federal law prohibited admitting him to the state bar, unless state legislation was passed.

Counsel for the Justice Department agreed that state legislation could cure the issue, responding to inquiries on the matter by stating, "We don't think there would be any federal prohibition on the issuance of such a law license." When pressed further, he stated, "That would be an outlet if the state enacted such legislation."

The legislation was introduced and passed shortly thereafter. It is expected that the California Supreme Court will rule in Garcia's favor, now that the legislation has been signed into law.

Conflict With Federal Law?

On the surface, the local legislation would seem to conflict with a 1996 federal law that was at issue in the state Supreme Court case. The statute, 8 U.S.C. § 1621, prohibits states from providing benefits to aliens and "nonimmigrants," including professional licenses. The final provision of the statute, however, allows states to provide eligibility for state and local benefits, so long as the law enabling such benefits was passed after August 22, 1996.

California's Massive Immigration Overhaul

The law practice bill was just one of eight signed by the governor over the weekend dealing with immigration reform. According to a press release from his office, other bills include one that prohibits Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holds for those not arrested for major crimes, and another that allows undocumented immigrants to legally drive in the state.

"While Washington waffles on immigration, California's forging ahead," said Governor Brown. "I'm not waiting."

We'll have further coverage of the major immigration overhaul package in the coming weeks on our California Case Law Blog.

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