By Dan Whitcomb and Mary Slosson
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Department of Justice told California's high court on Thursday that it should not allow an illegal immigrant to practice law in the state even though he passed the bar exam and has the backing of state officials.
The amicus brief, filed after the California Supreme Court sought the Justice Department's guidance in the closely watched test case, was a blow against the efforts by Sergio Garcia, 35, to win his law license despite his immigration status.
Garcia's case is the latest battleground in the nation's immigration wars that have seen the Obama administration grant leniency to young people brought into the country illegally as children even as a number of states have sought to crack down on illegal immigrants within their borders.
"The enforcement of the federal provisions governing employment by aliens is a responsibility of the federal government, and is not the proper subject of state-court proceedings, particularly in the context of state licensing," DOJ attorneys wrote in the 17-page brief.
"Instead, the only question before the Court is whether Mr. Garcia meets the criteria for admission to the bar under state and federal law," the lawyers wrote. "Because he is not an eligible alien ... and thus does not satisfy a condition set out in federal law, the bar application should be denied."
Garcia's lawyer, Jerome Fishkin, told Reuters he and his client were disappointed in the DOJ's position.
"We believe that our interpretation of the law is more persuasive than theirs," Fishkin said. "We will continue to work for Sergio's admission to practice law in California and his goal of obtaining U.S. citizenship.
A spokeswoman for the State Bar of California, which supports Garcia's bid to practice law, declined to comment while the case was pending.
PASSED THE BAR EXAM
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.
Garcia has already won support from state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who wrote an amicus brief to the state's highest court urging that he be admitted to the bar and describing him as "a model of the self-reliant and self-sufficient immigrant."
A spokesman for Harris declined to comment on the Justice Department brief.
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 what could become a test case for other young and undocumented professionals.
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.
A spokesman for the Department of Justice declined to comment beyond the brief.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)