Sergio C. Garcia made legal history Thursday.
The 36-year-old won a case before the California Supreme Court, allowing him to practice law. Garcia attended Cal Northeren School of Law in Chico and passed the California Bar Exam on the first try, but he's been unable to obtain a law license until now.
That's because he's undocumented.
In October, the California legislature passed a bill allowing "applicants who are not lawfully present in the United States, to be admitted as an attorney at law." Thursday's 7-0 decision from the California Supreme Court means that Garcia can benefit from this new state law.
"It has been a long battle, almost four years going on five," he says. "I'm very, very relieved now that this is finally over and I can finally achieve one of my two life dreams: one of which is to become a licensed attorney, and the other to hopefully, one day, to become a US citizen if we can get this immigration reform going here."
Garcia first came to the US with his family when he was 17 months old, but by the time he was 9, they moved back to Mexico. Finally, in 1994, at 17, Garcia and his family came back to California. His father got his citizenship immediately and applied for a green card for his son.
"Even though we were told it would take three to five years, it has taken over 19 years and I still don't have one," Garcia says.
He's filed requests for information about his green card status, but says all he can do is wait. In the meantime, he graduated from Durham High School, attended a community college, and then transferred to Chico State University. On his own website, Garcia writes that he had to turn down admission offers from universities like Stanford, UC Berkeley and UC Davis, because his citizenship status made him ineligible for scholarships. He eventually graduated from law school and passed the California Bar Exam in 2009.
"The question as to whether an undocumented person can be an attorney had never come up. So the court really had to wrangle with it," Garcia says. Now, however, Garcia finds himself in a unique legal conundrum: as an undocumented immigrant he isn't hirable, but a court decision deems him a lawyer.
"I cannot work for any law firm, but there's no law that says I cannot open my own [law firm] and that's exactly what I intend to do," he says. "Being here as an undocumented person is a civil infraction, which subjects you to a $50 fine. I'm more than happy to pay the fine any day. Unfortunately, you know, I'm not being offered that green card, therefore, I'm just on standby."
Garcia says that he knew he wanted to become a lawyer at a very young age. His immigration experiences shaped how he saw the legal system in the US and in Mexico.
"I personally don't appreciate injustice, and from a very young age I saw that — people without money don't get the same justice as people who have money get. So I think you should always get the law you deserve, not the justice you can afford and, therefore, that's what I intend to do," he says. "I want to do my best to help people navigate the legal system and make sure they get a fair shake."