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Sergio Garcia: This Illegal Immigrant Is One Face of the American Dream

Sergio Garcia wants to practice law in California. He currently runs a paralegal support company and himself spent time as a paralegal. He graduated from a California law school and passed the state bar exam on his first try in 2009, whereas roughly half of test-takers in California require more than one attempt to pass the exam. The California State Bar approves of him.

Yet the federal government feels justified in declaring that he cannot be admitted to the Bar, providing an example of Congress creating overly specific legislation in which intended or unintended consequences later prove harmful both to the U.S. economy as well as the aspiration of innumerable individuals.    

Why can't he be a lawyer?

He’s an illegal immigrant — one from Mexico who spent the better part of his first decade in America before going back to Mexico around age nine. Upon re-entry into the U.S. at age 17 in 1994, he filed for a permanent visa and has been waiting for the paperwork to come through ever since. Two decades later, Mr. Garcia is still pursuing his dream of becoming an attorney despite not yet having a visa.

He is far from the only one. There are thousands of undocumented individuals who wish to practice law or another profession in the U.S. but are held back by their lack of proper citizenship or permanent resident status. There is now a Dream Bar Association seeking “to provide a forum where its members can answer question related to the legal field, and work cooperatively on other issues affecting undocumented immigrant people.”

At 36, Mr. Garcia is too old for any law passed for the benefit of immigrants who were brought to the country as young children to apply to him. He is involved in a lawsuit against the Department of Justice, one he says he is prepared to take all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if need be. As the Wall Street Journal has reported, the DOJ says that the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act passed by Congress in 1996 prevents the use of public funds for the benefit of illegal immigrants, including obtaining any kind of professional license (unless a state passes a law explicitly allowing this).

Beyond the support of the California State Bar, Garcia also has the support of the California Attorney General, Kamala Harris, but the state cannot proceed in the face of the federal government’s objection. The California Supreme Court is currently considering the case and has three months to give an opinion.

This federal law holds sway because the highest court of a state ultimately must inspect and approve all law licenses, thus using public funds, as reported by Al Jazeera America.

However, Garcia and his legal team interpret the law as meaning that only professional licenses may not be subsidized for illegal immigrants with public money. As the State Bar Association does most of the work in vetting would-be lawyers, and is funded by membership fees, they maintain that the law does not apply to him.  

Garcia, his attorneys, and the state legal authorities are convinced that this is an issue of state sovereignty and that the federal government does not have the right to determine who in a given state is granted a license to practice law. They maintain that such matters have historically — and in their minds, properly — been left to the states.

And why shouldn't a state government determine who may be granted a professional license within state borders? What inter-state role is there for the federal government to play?

This case is only one of a large number that pit individual parties in various states against the federal government on legal matters related to immigration. How this one plays out in months to come once the California Supreme Court makes its opinion known may well be an indicator of the viability of proposals to overhaul the immigration system.  

Should this happen, hopefully no one will still be waiting 20 years later to find out whether or not he or she will receive a visa. 

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