California poised to allow undocumented immigrants to practice law

09/21/2013 12:00 AM

08/11/2014 3:23 PM

For Sergio Covarrubias Garcia and his supporters, a critical word is missing from the door of the “Offices of Sergio C. Garcia” – “Law.”

Garcia, 36, isn’t fulfilled by framed letters from the State Bar of California, declaring that he passed his bar exam on the first attempt, and for at least a couple of weeks in 2011, was a bona fide member of the legal profession. The posters for his appearances as a motivational speaker, in which he lectures on the “Road Towards The American Dream” and his personal saga as “The Undocumented Juris Doctor,” aren’t enough.

Now a bill, rushed to passage last week in the final hours of the California legislative session, seeks to allow Garcia to claim the law license that was withheld because he had entered the United States illegally, brought to the state by his farmworker parents when he was 17 months old. If Gov. Jerry Brown signs Assembly Bill 1024, aspiring attorneys who pass the bar exam can be certified to practice law in California even if they aren’t legal residents of the United States.

It isn’t known how many undocumented students are attending law school in California. Legal observers suggest that several licensed attorneys who lack legal residency may be practicing law in California, undetected.

But Garcia drew notice, and a cause was born, after the State Bar’s Committee of Bar Examiners in 2011 cited Garcia’s successful bar exam and its determination of his positive moral character in asking the California Supreme Court to license him to practice law – and disclosed that Garcia was an undocumented immigrant.

The California Supreme Court, which licenses attorneys in the state, held up Garcia’s license, demanding the bar show why he should be allowed to practice. The high court asked why it should admit Garcia given federal law prevents undocumented immigrants from receiving public benefits, including professional licenses, and absent a state law authorizing licenses for such individuals.

After a judge in Oroville had sworn in Garcia as an attorney, after his Butte County community of Durham and his former farmworker parents held a lavish party to celebrate his achievement, the Supreme Court last year effectively declared he wasn’t a lawyer.

“The hardest moment was tasting that dream and then having it taken away,” said Garcia, who had given his mom his diploma from Cal Northern School of Law in Chico as a Mother’s Day gift. His parents rented a limo and a party room to hail the new lawyer in the family. His achievement was celebrated on-air by local Spanish-language Radio Mexico 97.7 FM. In two weeks, he lined up his first 15 clients. And then it was over.

“I couldn’t help but feel ashamed,” Garcia said in a video on his website, which asks visitors to “Support Sergio Garcia’s American Dream to Practice Law.” “I just felt it was my fault, like I had let my family down, like everything I had done didn’t mean anything.”

Garcia’s father, Salvador Covarrubias, had earned U.S. citizenship in 1994. His mother, Albertina Garcia, is a legal permanent resident – her son uses her last name – and three other siblings are American-born citizens. But 19 years have passed, without resolution from immigration authorities, since Sergio Garcia first applied for a green card granting permanent residency and the legal right to work.

So while Garcia argued for the state Supreme Court to grant his law license, he began making motivational speeches at law schools and community gatherings in California. He maintained an office to work on his case and schedule his appearances. He described his upbringing, including working in almond groves beside his father, and his American – and Mexican – dream of becoming a lawyer.

It began at age 10. His father moved Garcia and his mother and some siblings back to Mexico, frustrated that the kids no longer spoke Spanish. Garcia excelled in school in his Michoacán village of Villa Jimenez.

One day, as Garcia tells it, he went to the municipal offices to ask the town president to donate books to his school. There he saw inmates in the local jail. He came to believe many got out only if they could afford a lawyer – or a bribe.

“I just didn’t think that you should only get the justice you could afford,” Garcia said in an interview this week at his offices in Chico. “I thought you should get the justice you deserve. It was a crazy idea for a 10-year-old boy, and it just never went away.”

Garcia said he protested when his father demanded that the family move back to California when he was 17. His dad and other siblings legally traveled north. Garcia said he and his mother were held by smugglers in Tijuana until they were spirited across the border, his mother on the floor of a pickup truck, Sergio packed in with other people in the covered truck bed.

He went on to graduate with honors from Durham High School near Chico and Butte College. He earned a paralegal certificate from California State University, Chico, before entering law school in the belief he could practice upon graduating and passing the bar.

He completed an unpaid internship with a local attorney, Adam Sorrells, that included writing briefs and courtroom work in a personal injury case in San Francisco that resulted in a $660,000 award from a trucking company to an accident victim.

“His legal acumen and intellect is top-notch,” Sorrells said. “He grasps legal concepts instantly. And he wants to help people and is selfless with his time.”

California Attorney General Kamala Harris, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Dream Bar Association, a group supporting undocumented law students, joined the State Bar last year in backing Garcia’s legal quest to win issuance of his California law license.

“I think he is what our country symbolizes: the hope that people can come to this country, born in poverty, and climb their way up to fulfill the American dream,” said Holly Cooper, a staff attorney with the UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic, which also filed briefs supporting Garcia’s appeal. “If we say, despite all of your hard work and what you have rightfully obtained, that we’re going to create this glass ceiling for undocumented immigrants, then the American dream becomes illusory.”

Attorneys for the State Bar’s Committee of Bar Examiners, including UC Davis law school dean Kevin R. Johnson, argued in a brief that granting Garcia a law license didn’t violate federal statutes prohibiting unauthorized immigrants from seeking “public resources.”

“Mr. Garcia and other similarly situated individuals – who have graduated from law school and passed one of the most difficult examinations in the United States – are not seeking ‘public resources,’” the lawyers for the bar committee wrote. “Indeed, there may be no better example of individuals who are relying upon their ‘own capabilities’ as opposed to ‘public resources.’”

Larry DeSha, a retired prosecutor for the State Bar, wrote an opposing brief, declaring that “Mr. Garcia is not qualified to practice law because he continually violated federal law by his presence in the United States” as an undocumented immigrant.

Lawyers for the U.S. Department of Justice also opposed Garcia’s appeal in a brief, citing a federal law prohibiting states from issuing professional licenses for undocumented immigrants. Even if the state were to approve a law license for Garcia, the Department of Justice wrote that “his possession of such a license would not imply authorization to work in the United States.”

The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments Sept. 4. The justices, whose ruling is pending, suggested that federal law denies Garcia the “public benefit” of a law license and that they weren’t inclined to grant one. But Justice Marvin R. Baxter noted that federal statutes also appeared to give states the right to pass legislation allowing the issuance of professional licenses to illegal immigrants.

“I’m curious as to why the Legislature has not taken up that invitation,” Baxter said to Garcia’s lawyers, asking, “Do you happen to know?”

Two days later, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, introduced urgency legislation on behalf of the California Latino Caucus. AB 1024, which would allow the California Supreme Court to license lawyers even if they are not legal residents, passed with bipartisan support, 62-4 in the Assembly and 29-5 in the Senate.

“He represents so many kids out there ... who are now in law school or have graduated and have no ability to practice their profession,” Gonzalez said. “This is not somebody who is draining the system. He has been waiting for his green card this entire time. But for our immigration system that is so out of whack, he should be able to bear the fruits of his hard work.”

Brown has taken no position on the bill, according to his office. Even if the governor signs AB 1024 and the state Supreme Court supports him, conflicting state and federal laws mean Garcia may face more legal hurdles before practicing law, said McGeorge School of Law associate dean Clark Kelso.

“The state Supreme Court will not ignore the fact that the Legislature has adopted (a bill) that being an illegal immigrant is no bar for being a lawyer,” Kelso said. “That doesn’t mean that it’s over. The federal position is he can’t be an employee, that irrespective of whether you’re given a bar license, it’s illegal for you to be employed in California.”

Garcia said he wants to pursue civil law, including personal injury cases and other legal matters “representing the underdog.” But he isn’t yet renaming the “Offices of Sergio C. Garcia.”

“Until I have that piece of paper in hand and can put the name, ‘Law,’ on my door,” he said, “I’m not going to be comfortable.”

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