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Immigration fight finds new venue: Licensing a lawyer

| Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, 7:15 p.m.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — An illegal immigrant's unprecedented quest to get his California law license will finally get its day in court.

After years of waiting, Sergio Garcia, a Chico man who has secured his law degree but not his U.S. citizenship, on Wednesday will be at the center of closely watched legal arguments in the California Supreme Court.

The justices are considering whether the state Bar can grant an illegal immigrant a card to practice law in California, a question entangled in the fast-moving, complex immigration debate unfolding across the country.

The Obama administration, despite publicly supporting the rights of immigrants in exactly Garcia's posture, has urged the Supreme Court to deny him a law license — taking the position it would conflict with federal immigration laws.

But Garcia has widespread support, including from the State Board of Bar Examiners, Attorney General Kamala Harris, a host of civil rights organizations and dozens of legal scholars who say both state and federal law allow California to license such immigrants.

“It's been four years since I passed the bar (exam),” the 36-year-old Garcia said last week. “You only live once, and I only have a limited amount of time.”

Garcia's pursuit of a law license has attracted nationwide attention, with other states watching the outcome and the prospect of an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A similar case is unfolding in Florida, where the state Supreme Court there has thus far refused to give a law license to Jose-Godinez Samperio, but there has not been a final ruling. An illegal immigrant and prospective lawyer in New York also filed a brief supporting Garcia in the Supreme Court.

Garcia was born in Mexico but spent most of his life, including parts of his youth, in the United States. His immigration status has been in flux since 1994, when he returned from years of schooling in Mexico to rejoin his family and finish high school in the small orchard town of Durham. His father and most of his siblings are citizens, but the sluggish federal visa process for Mexican immigrants has slowed his bid for legal status.

At the current pace, Garcia, who is too old for a federal program that aids some illegally brought into the country as youths, estimates he will not get his green card until about 2019 — and he does not want to wait that long to be eligible to be a lawyer.

To Garcia's supporters, his case is a prime example of a Mexican immigrant who has done all the right things to acclimate and succeed here. In her legal brief, Harris wrote that admitting Garcia to the bar is “consistent with state and federal policy that encourages immigrants, both documented and undocumented, to contribute to society.”

But the Justice Department argues it simply conflicts with federal immigration law to give any professional license to an immigrant here illegally.

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