By Renee C. Byer, for USA TODAY
Law school graduate Sergio Garcia has passed the California state bar exam but has been prevented from practicing law because his family entered the country illegally.
By Alan Gomez, USA TODAY
Judges in several states are preparing to answer the latest question in the complex world of immigration: Can an illegal immigrant legally practice law in the USA?
Illegal immigrants brought to the USA as children, and who later graduated law schools in California, Florida and New York, are trying to gain entry to their state bars so they can work as attorneys.
Sergio Garcia's family illegally crossed into the USA from Mexico when he was 17 months old, and he went on to graduate from Chico State University and Cal Northern School of Law. He took the state bar exam in July 2009 and passed it but was told he could not join the state bar - a standard requirement for all practicing attorneys - because he had checked a box on his application that said he was in the country illegally.
The California Supreme Court asked for opinions on the question and could hold oral arguments in Garcia's case before making a decision. The California State Bar told the court this month that Garcia and others like him should be allowed to be licensed, but it is awaiting guidance from the Supreme Court.
Though the ruling could apply only to Garcia, the 35-year-old said the court's opinion could go a long way in determining the fate of others like him.
"This case stopped being about me a long time ago," said Garcia, who is working alongside his father as a beekeeper until the case is resolved. "The outcome is going to have a major impact on future generations of attorneys and people in my situation. At least they will have good guidance."
For some, the idea of allowing people in Garcia's position to legally work not only would encourage more people to bypass the legal immigration system but would throw a cloud of illegitimacy over the country's legal system.
"There's a certain level of absurdity to someone trying to practice law when they're in violation of the law," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates lower levels of legal and illegal immigration. "It's unfortunate that children find themselves in these situations due to the decisions that their parents made. But that's unfortunately just the way it works. We all suffer from poor decisions that our parents made."
Others say forbidding illegal immigrants from the legal profession would be a waste of talent. Three former presidents of the American Bar Association filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a similar case in Florida.
Jose Manuel Godinez-Samperio was brought to the USA illegally by his parents when he was 9. He graduated from Florida State University College of Law in May 2011 and later passed the Florida state bar exam. The former Bar Association presidents argue that the resilience exhibited by people in Godinez-Samperio's position makes them more than qualified to practice law.
"Those who graduate from law school have overcome substantial obstacles - language barriers, cultural differences, inadequate finances," the former presidents wrote. "Imposing a blanket ban on their admission to the bar would be a waste of exceptional talent for our profession."
The debate comes as members of Congress and state legislators around the country grapple with the fate of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the USA.
The Obama administration has pushed for passage of the DREAM Act, which would grant legal status to some children brought to the USA as children and who either attended college or served in the military.
Opponents, including House Judiciary chairman Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, oppose that plan, saying it would further encourage people to enter the country illegally. Some Republicans, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, call for a different version of the DREAM Act, which would allow some of those illegal immigrants to stay in the country but without the possibility of full legal residency or U.S. citizenship.
Cesar Vargas, whose family illegally crossed the border from Mexico when he was 5, graduated from the City University of New York School of Law and passed the New York state bar exam in November. He hasn't been accepted to the state bar.
Vargas has heard from others in his situation in Texas, Arizona and Connecticut, and they are creating a DREAM Bar Association to push for the right to practice law.
Whatever comes of California's decision, Garcia says he's happy it will finally give people some long-sought clarity.
"If we succeed, then I think the public policy benefits will be incredible, and it'll motivate people and let them know that the American dream is still out there," he said. "If there should be a finding against me, then at least people will know not to go law school because it's pointless."