Sergio Garcia, 36, had been waiting for four years to have the opportunity to practice law in California. In 2009, he graduated from Cal Northern School of Law, passed the bar exam and the moral character requirement but was denied a license because of his immigration status.
The undocumented immigrant took his case to the state Supreme Court. But it took a new bill, the AB 1024, signed into law last week by Gov. Jerry Brown, to allow him to walk into a courtroom and practice law. The ordinance now makes California the first state in the nation to allow undocumented immigrants who pass the State Bar exam to practice law.
“It had been four years of an uphill battle, of an immigrant against the federal government of the most powerful country in the world,” Garcia explained.
When he got the call from Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D), the author of the bill, telling him that his battle was over, Garcia said he let out “happy tears.”
“I got choked up. I allowed myself to relieve the stress and everything I have felt,” he said. “But more than being happy for myself, I am just happy for people in my same situation who are not going to have to suffer in making their dream of becoming an attorney a reality”
Gonzalez said that Garcia was the first person she called after finding out Gov. Brown had signed AB 1024. Garcia, she said, had served as the inspiration for the bill.
“I was super excited,” she said. “This gives (undocumented immigrants) the opportunity to continue to pursue their dreams while we wait for something to happen at the national level.”
“This is also an indication that in California we can sit around and wait for immigration reform or we can start to improve the lives of the people who are here,” Gonzalez added.
New World View
San Diego criminal immigration attorney Narciso Delgado-Cruz, whose clientele is nearly 95 percent Latino, said the greatest impact this new law will have on the profession is the change in perspective. There will be new lawyers with a different “worldview,” he said.
“It’s not only about being able to communicate,” Delgado-Cruz said. “Clients want to be understood, they like it when a lawyer can relate to their struggles, their fears and their dreams.”
On the same token, Garcia, who plans on practicing civil litigation and some immigration law, said the immigrant community is “extremely underserved” and they need lawyers that understand their challenges.
“The ability to be of service to the community and be a vehicle for social change and equality is a great thing that will help not only society but the economy in general,” he said.
Gonzalez also noted it is gratifying to know that the industry will now have “more culturally competent attorneys in all types of law,” not just immigration.
But some argue the law goes too far – particularly because lawyers take an oath to uphold the law and, critics say, are breaking it by being in the country illegally.
“…If you are a lawyer who knowingly is breaking the law,” wrote Tod Robberson, an editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News, ”why should anyone trust you?”
Both Gonzalez and Delgado-Cruz said they hope this new law in California has a ripple effect into other states. There are other cases like Garcia’s in several states, including Mexican immigrant Jose Godinez-Samperino, 25, from Florida.
Godinez-Samperino graduated from Florida State University School of Law and has been unable to practice law, but the Florida Board of Bar Examiners has asked the state Supreme Court to decide if they can extend membership to the bar to someone not legally in the country.
“Hopefully other states will see this as not so scary and follow suit,” Gonzalez said. “We can’t change federal immigration law, but we can do our best to help.”
Rafael Castellanos, president of the San Diego Raza Lawyers Association, said that when it comes to Latinos there may not be many that benefit from a ripple effect because, regardless of legal status, Latinos represent a small proportion of individuals going to law school, taking the bar and practicing law.
But to the small amount of people who will benefit from the passage of AB 1024 he said it is “symbolic and about fairness.”
“These immigrants grew up here and worked their butts off and earned something that is extremely difficult to earn for anybody,” Castellanos said. “Then to be deprived of the privileges of their work and the fruits of their labor, we don’t do that to anybody else in this country. We were founded on fairness, equality and justice.”
Delgado-Cruz added that by continuing to talk about immigration issues and individual states being progressive and passing bills, such as AB 1024, a strong message is being sent to the federal government.
"That message is, ‘government, get off your butt and work on immigration reform. Stop trying to avoid the conversation, something has to be done. Our system is outdated and broken."