Undocumented Immigrant Fights to Practice Law in California

Article excerpt

CHICO, Calif. -- For Sergio Covarrubias Garcia and his supporters, a critical word is missing from the door of the "Offices of Sergio C. Garcia" -- "Law."

Garcia, 36, isn't fulfilled by framed letters from the State Bar of California, declaring that he passed his bar exam on the first attempt, and for at least a couple of weeks in 2011, was a bona fide member of the legal profession. The posters for his appearances as a motivational speaker, in which he lectures on the "Road Towards The American Dream" and his personal saga as "The Undocumented Juris Doctor," aren't enough.

Now a bill, rushed to passage last week in the final hours of the California legislative session, seeks to allow Garcia to claim the law license that was withheld because he had entered the United States illegally, brought to the state by his farmworker parents when he was 17 months old.

If Gov. Jerry Brown signs Assembly Bill 1024, aspiring attorneys who pass the bar exam can be certified to practice law in California even if they aren't legal residents of the United States.

It isn't known how many undocumented students are attending law school in California. Legal observers suggest that several licensed attorneys who lack legal residency may be practicing law in California, undetected.

But Garcia drew notice, and a cause was born, after the State Bar's Committee of Bar Examiners in 2011 cited Garcia's successful bar exam and its determination of his positive moral character in asking the California Supreme Court to license him to practice law - - and disclosed that Garcia was an undocumented immigrant.

The California Supreme Court, which licenses attorneys in the state, held up Garcia's license, demanding the bar show why he should be allowed to practice. The high court asked why it should admit Garcia given federal law prevents undocumented immigrants from receiving public benefits, including professional licenses, and absent a state law authorizing licenses for such individuals.

After a judge in Oroville had sworn in Garcia as an attorney, after his Butte County community of Durham and his former farmworker parents held a lavish party to celebrate his achievement, the Supreme Court last year effectively declared he wasn't a lawyer.

"The hardest moment was tasting that dream and then having it taken away," said Garcia, who had given his mom his diploma from Cal Northern School of Law in Chico as a Mother's Day gift. In two weeks, he had lined up his first 15 clients. And then it was over.

Garcia's father, Salvador Covarrubias, had earned U.S. citizenship in 1994. His mother, Albertina Garcia, is a legal permanent resident, and three other siblings are American-born citizens. But 19 years have passed, without resolution from immigration authorities, since Sergio Garcia first applied for a green card granting permanent residency and the legal right to work. …