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 Originally enacted as part of federal welfare reform, the 1996 law's section on "Restricting Welfare and Public Benefits for Aliens," prohibits the granting of state professional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.
In my view, Garcia and the hundreds of thousands of others who came illegally to the U.S. as children and have led exemplary lives here should be granted amnesty. There, I've said it, the dreaded A-word. But real amnesty requires Congress to enact a law, which will then be signed by the president. The Obama decision to issue waivers to so-called Dreamers (illegal immigrants who came here as children) doesn't accomplish the same thing.
Amnesty recognizes a broken law but forgives the transgressor for reasons of mercy, or in the case of young children, lack of agency on their part. Former President Ronald Reagan understood this when he granted amnesty to some 3 million illegal immigrants residing in the U.S. in 1986. If Garcia had received amnesty, he'd be a legal resident right now.
But amnesty is not enough -- and in the case of our current population of 11 million illegal immigrants, no politician will even consider a true amnesty. No law that does not include some punishment has a chance of passing.
What is needed is a change in overall immigration policy that would make Garcia's case impossible. Even without amnesty, Garcia should long ago have received permanent legal resident status. But our current system is hopelessly backlogged, and waits of two or more decades is the rule, not the exception, for people from Latin America and parts of Asia. The number of permanent visas available is too small to accommodate U.S. labor demands, much less the desire of people like Garcia to contribute their talents to our nation.
Unless Congress acts -- and soon -- we'll see more states like California that try to dig their ways out of the morass our immigration laws have created. Immigration policy is a federal responsibility, but Congress has abrogated this responsibility for the last decade. Keeping bad federal laws on the books doesn't advance the rule of law. It only encourages scofflaws and state usurpation of the federal role.
Linda Chavez is the author of "An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal." To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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