Sergio Garcia completed law school with the help of odd jobs and proceeds from a self-help book. Then he passed the state law exam on the first try.
But his goal to practice law in California remains unfulfilled because of his status as a Mexican immigrant living in the country without legal permission.
Garcia's case for admission to the state bar is now before the California Supreme Court, which will decide whether he should be allowed to practice law even though his immigration status makes employing him illegal.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris filed a brief with the court on Wednesday in support of Garcia's application. The court is also seeking input from the U.S. Department of Justice.
"Admitting Garcia to the bar would be consistent with state and federal policy that encourages immigrants, both documented and undocumented, to contribute to society," Harris wrote in her brief to the Supreme Court.
Garcia's attorney, Jerome Fishkin, said his client deserves the opportunity to practice law.
"Sergio is poster boy for the sort of immigrant that made this country great. He comes here, he works hard, he's not been on welfare, not taken student loans and worked his way all the way through," Fishkin said.
However, Larry DeSha, a former state bar prosecutor, said the issue comes down to whether or not Garcia can uphold his oath.
"It is the duty of an attorney to support the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this state. My argument is that includes immigration law, which means not being here illegally," DeSha said.
The 35-year-old Garcia, who lives in Durham, does not like to be referred to as an undocumented immigrant. While he said he came unlawfully to the U.S. as a toddler with his parents, he applied for legal residency in 1995. His application is still pending 17 years later, after his father already became a citizen and his mother a permanent resident.
"It's a difficult position. It's like being in limbo. I don't belong anywhere," Garcia said in an interview on Thursday.
He didn't expect his immigration status to interfere with his aspirations to be a lawyer, he said, until the State Bar of California started asking for prospective applicants' immigration status right before he passed the bar exam. He told the State Bar his status was pending.
"I have done the best I can within my limitations and circumstances to be 100 percent honest and upfront," Garcia said.
The examiners of the State Bar of California have recommended that the California Supreme Court rule in favor of Garcia.
Fishkin said even though his client cannot legally be employed, it would not be illegal for clients to hire Garcia as an independent contractor.
The U.S. Department of Justice is expected to file its brief to the state Supreme Court in August.