Does it make sense to allow someone who has broken our immigration laws to be admitted to the practice of law? Most people would answer "no," but then not much makes sense when it comes to the morass of immigration policy these days. This is why the decision by the California Supreme Court this week to admit Sergio Garcia to the practice of law in the state should come as no surprise.
Garcia came illegally to California as a 17-month-old baby, brought by his migrant worker parents. He lived in California until he was 9 years old, and then returned with his family to Mexico in 1986. In 1994, at age 17, he accompanied his father back to California to work in the fields picking almonds. By then, the father had obtained legal status in America and immediately applied for legal status for his son. Nineteen years later, Garcia still awaits a decision on his permanent resident status, which is not uncommon for those who try to legally traverse the system. Meanwhile, Garcia graduated high school, college and law school. He took the bar examination right after graduating from Cal Northern School of Law and passed it on the first try -- a feat only about half of 2013 bar exam takers managed. When Garcia applied for admission to the state bar, however, the Supreme Court was faced with a dilemma.
Federal law prohibits providing non-citizens certain benefits. Originally enacted as part of federal welfare reform, the 1996 law's section on "Restricting Welfare and Public Benefits for Aliens," prohibits the granting of state professional licenses to those who are not legal residents of the U.S. However, the federal law provides an exception "through the enactment of a state law after August 22, 1996, which affirmatively provides for such eligibility."
In October 2012, shortly after the California Supreme Court heard arguments in the Garcia case, the state legislature indeed passed a law that allowed illegal immigrants to obtain law licenses. The provision thus fulfilled the federal law's exception clause.
I am happy for Garcia, who seems by all accounts to be a smart, talented and dedicated man who will contribute to the state and country he calls home. And the state Supreme Court appears to have correctly interpreted both state and federal law. Nonetheless, I am troubled by the contortions in common sense the decision entailed, most of which are the result of a broken immigration system.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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