New immigration law in California gives aspiring attorneys hope

Sarait Escorza is getting a taste of what being an immigration lawyer is like.

For the last few months, she has helped advise young immigrants like herself, who crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visas. The hardest part, she said, is telling some clients that there is no immediate solution.

Escorza is one of nine legal trainees at Educators for Fair Consideration in San Francisco. Most grew up without legal status and plan to become attorneys, a goal that became less quixotic this month when California became the first state to allow immigrants who are in the country illegally to practice law.

The training program began in 2009 on the theory that the aspiring attorneys would benefit from being exposed to immigration law even if they ultimately could not be admitted to the bar.

"Their whole lives, being undocumented they faced a lot of obstacles, and none was able to stop them," said Jazmin Segura, Educators for Fair Consideration's communications director. "This was not going to be different in that sense. They are Americans in every sense but paper, and they continued to aspire to be attorneys."

Escorza crossed the border from Mexico illegally when she was 10. She decided in college to become an immigration attorney when her younger sister was nearly deported. With an attorney's help, her sister and her mother got visas.

"Knowing one of my family members was at risk of deportation, to me that was just ridiculous," said Escorza, 24, who graduated from Cal State Chico with a degree in social work. "I felt like I was a member of this country, contributing and giving the best of me, but I couldn't really do much to help."

Escorza and some of the other trainees recently obtained temporary legal status and work permits under President Obama's deferred action program. The new California law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 5, provides added assurance that they can become attorneys.

"I feel like it's a new light that's been lit," trainee Diana Vergara, 19, said. "I see hope. I know that one day I'll be able to do what I ultimately want to do."

Sergio Garcia, who brought the lawsuit that prompted the legislation, is 36, too old to qualify for deferred action. Because of the new law, the California Supreme Court could dismiss his case at a closed hearing Wednesday. He plans to continue as a motivational speaker while heading his own law firm, which his supporters say he can legally do by collecting his fees through a limited liability company.

Cases similar to Garcia's are pending in Florida and New York.

"Clearly, you've got people who against all odds have struggled to get their legal education," said Sandy D'Alemberte, former president of Florida State University, who is representing the plaintiff in the Florida case. "At that point, they can contribute, and they might even contribute something further, because they've had a unique experience."

But Camarillo attorney Larry DeSha contends that the new California law clashes with federal law. He does not think there is any legal way for Garcia to make money in the U.S.

"If somebody does hire an illegal and it comes up, the client has to fire them right there, as soon as they find out," said DeSha, who filed a brief against Garcia in the California Supreme Court.

Another group of aspiring professionals, the Pre-Health Dreamers, is also sponsored by Educators for Fair Consideration. On its website, the group of more than 200 students says immigrants can obtain California medical licenses if they have Social Security numbers and are authorized to work, meaning that deferred action recipients are eligible.

The legal trainees, who receive a $3,000 stipend for a year of part-time work, communicate with their clients mostly online, under the supervision of a staff attorney.

Denia Perez, who is the program's legal coordinator and a former legal trainee, is applying to law schools this fall. She has a work permit through deferred action, but she still cannot get federal loans, so financing her education will be a challenge.

"I had the sense that it would be difficult, if not impossible," Perez, 23, said of becoming an attorney. "I never wanted to give in to those fears, because I felt that my parents were depending on me, and I wanted to do something to be able to help them."

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