Court Rules Undocumented Immigrants Can Get a Law License in California

The state Supreme Court ruling, which may impact cases in other states, is part of a broader debate about what public services and benefits should be available to residents who don't have a visa.

An undocumented immigrant without a green card may receive a state license to practice law in California, according to a court ruling issued Jan. 2.

The decision came a day after a California law went into effect that affirms the right of undocumented immigrants to receive a law license. The original bill passed the state legislature with overwhelming majorities in both chambers and received Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature in October 2013. New legislation was necessary because a federal statute called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 prohibits undocumented immigrants from receiving certain commercial licenses from state agencies, unless state law explicitly allows it.

Sergio Garcia, the applicant in the California case, was born in Mexico in 1977 and moved to the United States before his second birthday. He lived in Mexico again between the ages of nine and 17 years old, but returned to California in 1994. At that time, his father filed an immigration visa petition and by January 1995, federal immigration officials accepted the request. Because of the backlog of immigrant applicants from Mexico awaiting a visa, however, Garcia has not received a green card after 19 years in line.

After graduating from high school and college, Garcia earned a law degree from Cal Northern School of Law in 2009 and passed the state bar examination the same year. In his application, he admitted he was not a U.S. citizen and noted that his immigration status was still pending. The state Committee of Bar Examiners found Garcia met its moral standards to practice law in California and submitted his name to the state Supreme Court for admission to the state bar. The court, however, held up his application due to the 1996 federal statute.

Other states, such as Florida and New York, have similar legal cases wending their way through the court system. In California the dispute pitted the Obama administration against state officials, including Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris. The debate over granting law licenses to undocumented immigrants is part of a broader national conversation about what public services and benefits, such as driver's licenses and discounted college tuition, should be available to residents who do not have a visa.

The California Supreme Court could have rejected Garcia's application on the grounds that it has supremacy in deciding who gets admitted to the state bar. Instead the seven justices unanimously ruled in favor of Garcia's application and, more significantly, they concluded that “there is no state law or state public policy that would justify precluding undocumented immigrants, as a class, from obtaining a law license in California.”

The decision did point out that some questions remain unresolved, particularly what kinds of legal services undocumented immigrants could provide for compensation and whether they could work for themselves as independent contractors.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.