The Obama administration on Thursday said giving an undocumented immigrant a California law license would violate a 1996 federal immigration law.
In a brief filed with the California Supreme Court, the U.S. Justice Department opposed Chico-area law school grad Sergio Garcia's right to become a lawyer as long as he remains an illegal immigrant. The state Supreme Court, which took up the case earlier this year, had asked the federal government for its legal opinion.
"In the view of the United States, (federal law) prohibits this court from issuing a law license to an unlawfully present alien," government lawyers wrote.
Garcia, who has obtained his law degree and passed the state bar exam, is in legal limbo while the Supreme Court considers whether it has the ability to give him a law license. The State Bar Board of Examiners recommended licensing the 35-year-old Garcia, prompting the Supreme Court to take up the legal issue, particularly whether it would conflict with federal immigration restrictions.
Jerome Fishkin, Garcia's lawyer, said he was "disappointed DOJ did not support Sergio.
Sergio will keep pursuing his two dreams -- become a U.S. citizen and become a California attorney," he added.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris has sided with Garcia's right to be a lawyer, as well as a large coalition of civil rights groups and law professors. Former California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno backed Garcia in one of the legal briefs filed with the court.
Garcia originally came to the United States as a toddler and returned to Mexico at around 8-years-old, returning here for good when he turned 17 to finish high school. He has been waiting 18 years for his visa; his father and most of his siblings are already U.S. citizens.
In an interview this summer with this newspaper, Garcia said he was hopeful the Supreme Court would "let me move on with my life."
But Justice Department lawyers argue the 1996 law forbids granting undocumented immigrants "certain public benefits," including professional licenses. In its court papers, the government argues that "those provisions were plainly designed to preclude undocumented aliens" from getting commercial or professional licenses.
Harris, California's attorney general, had argued that admitting Garcia to the bar would be "consistent with state and federal policy that encourages immigrants, both documented and undocumented, to contribute to society."
The Supreme Court is likely to hear arguments in the case sometime in the fall. Florida' state Supreme Court is considering a similar case.
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz