SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A California attorney who successfully fought a legal battle to practice law despite his immigration status got his green card Thursday and can now live in the U.S. legally as well.
Sergio Garcia, 38, first applied for permanent U.S. residency in 1994 at the age of 17 after his family moved from Mexico to California.
"It's an incredible relief," Garcia said after picking up the drivers' license-like card from his post office box in Chico, north of Sacramento.
The green card was granted on the heels of the law license he obtained in 2014 after a five-year legal and political battle that included opposition from the Obama administration and a favorable ruling in January from the California Supreme Court.
The license was granted after Gov. Jerry Brown signed a specially crafted bill passed by the Legislature to let Garcia practice law.
Garcia was thought to be the first immigrant in the country illegally to be granted a law license. He now represents car accident victims and settled his first legal case on Wednesday.
A New York appeals court on Thursday granted a law license to Cesar Vargas, whose mother brought him to the United States from Mexico when he was 5.
Even with his law license, Garcia faced obstacles. Without the green card, he couldn't work for a law firm or partner with other attorneys on cases. Many potential clients were wary of hiring a lawyer who could be arrested and deported.
Garcia says he is seeking U.S. citizenship, which would give him the right to vote, serve on a jury or work for the federal government.
He said he still gets an occasional threatening email from strangers upset that he is practicing law. He hopes his new immigration status will silence critics.
"I'm delighted for him," said Larry DeSha, a retired State Bar prosecutor who opposed the granting of a law license to Garcia while he lived in the country without permission. "He worked hard and waited too long."
DeSha said he has no issue with Garcia practicing law now that he's in the country legally.
Garcia arrived with his parents in California when he was an infant and returned to Mexico when he was 9. When he was 17, his family moved to Chico, where his father — a naturalized U.S. citizen — operates a beekeeping business.
After graduating from Cal Northern School of Law in Chico, Garcia passed the Bar exam in 2009 but wasn't able to practice law until 2014, when he opened an office in Chico.
On Wednesday, he won a $25,000 insurance payout for a woman hurt in an auto accident and collected his first payment.
"I'm on a roll," he said. "My girlfriend and I are going to a steakhouse and I'm ordering a lobster tail."