SAN FRANCISCO -- The California Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that a Mexican immigrant without a green card may be licensed as a lawyer, though his employment prospects will be limited.
In an opinion by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the state's high court said a law passed late last year by the Legislature enabled the court to admit Sergio C. Garcia, 36, to the legal profession.
The Legislature passed the law after the court indicated in a hearing in September that it was bound by federal restrictions to deny Garcia a license. The federal law says immigrants without permission to be in the U.S. should be denied professional licenses unless state governments took action to override the ban.
"We conclude that the fact that an undocumented immigrant's presence in this country violates federal statutes is not itself a sufficient or persuasive basis for denying undocumented immigrants, as a class, admission to the State Bar," the chief justice wrote.
The court said Garcia, who has been in the U.S. most of his life, will be able to practice law free of charge or outside the U.S. It is disputed, however, whether he could legally work for himself as an independent contractor and charge fees, the court said.
"We assume that a licensed undocumented immigrant will make all necessary inquiries and take appropriate steps to comply with applicable legal restrictions and will advise potential clients of any possible adverse or limiting effect the attorney's immigration status may pose," the court said.
Garcia emigrated from Mexico with his family when he was 17 months old. He returned to Mexico when he was 9 and reentered the U.S. illegally when he was 17.
His father, an agricultural worker who has obtained U.S. citizenship, applied for a green card for his son in 1994. The federal government approved the application in 1995, but Garcia is still waiting for his green card.
He graduated from Durham High School in Butte County and Cal State Chico and earned his law degree from Cal Northern School of Law in Chico. He passed the bar on his first attempt, and state examiners found him morally fit to practice law.
The state bar sent Garcia's application to the California Supreme Court for routine approval, but the court decided to review the case because of his immigration status.
Garcia has been waiting four years for his law license. He said in a previous interview that he makes a living as a motivational speaker.