By Mary Slosson
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - A law school graduate seeking to join the California bar despite his status as an illegal immigrant may soon become a test case for other young and undocumented professionals as the state's highest court weighs whether he can be admitted to practice law.
The state Supreme Court is mulling the case of 35-year-old Sergio Garcia, who has already found strong support both from California's attorney general and the state bar association. The court has requested guidance from the U.S. Justice Department on the matter that could come as early as Wednesday.
The case is the latest battleground in the nation's immigration wars that have seen the Obama administration grant leniency to some young illegal immigrants brought to the country as children even as a number of states have sought to crack down on illegal immigrants within their borders.
Garcia, who passed the bar exam, was brought to the United States when he was 17 months old by his parents. They left to return to their native Mexico when Garcia was eight or nine, only to return to the United States again when he was 17.
His father was a U.S. permanent resident at the time, and later became a citizen. In 1994, he filed a petition for his son to be granted an immigrant visa. Approved in 1995, Garcia has been waiting 17 years for a visa that will allow him to become a lawful permanent resident and, eventually, a citizen.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the case, but could soon weigh in after requesting in mid-July that it be granted an extension to August 1 to file a brief with its views on the matter. That opinion will carry weight for similar cases in Florida and New York.
"I am very hopeful and confident that they will weigh in my favor," Garcia told Reuters, declining to comment further.
Garcia has already won support from state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who wrote an amicus brief to the state Supreme Court urging that he be admitted to the bar and describing him as "a model of the self-reliant and self-sufficient immigrant."
Critics, however, say that allowing immigrants who are in the country illegally to become lawyers undermines the justice system, and that they should become legal immigrants first.
"Mr. Garcia is not qualified to practice law because he continually violates federal law by his presence in the United States," retired prosecutor for the state bar of California, Larry DeSha, wrote in an opposition brief.
The California Supreme Court has not given any indication of how long it might take to make a decision on Garcia's case after it receives guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice.
LIKEWISE IN FLORIDA, NEW YORK
Whatever the guidance, it could impact the cases of other young law school graduates in other states who find themselves in similar circumstances including a case that is making its way through Florida's legal system.
A 26-year-old Eagle Scout who has the backing of his former law professors at the Florida State University College of Law to enter the legal profession, Jose Manuel Godinez-Samperio arrived in the United States at the age of nine, when his parents illegally carried him across the border from Mexico.
The Florida Board of Bar Examiners asked that state's Supreme Court for guidance on whether Godinez-Samperio and others like him could be admitted to the state bar association as full-fledged lawyers. The court has yet to issue an opinion.
In New York, immigrant rights activist Cesar Vargas finds himself in a similar position. A law school graduate, he passed the bar exam and will face the same issues when he applies to be admitted to the bar as a lawyer.
Vargas was brought to the United States from Mexico when he was five years old. He put himself through college and then law school thanks to private scholarships and community support.
"My graduation was bittersweet, since I was accomplishing something that made my family proud, but knew I wasn't going to be a lawyer because of my status," Vargas told Reuters.
The Obama administration announced in June that hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants brought into the United States as children will be able to avoid deportation and get work permits.
That move was a nod to supporters of the DREAM Act, legislation that would allow certain children of illegal immigrants to stay in the United States to pursue college education and jobs and put them on a path to citizenship.
(Reporting by Mary Slosson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)