Legal Ethics

Can an Undocumented Immigrant Be Admitted to Practice? California Supreme Court Must Decide

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Corrected: In what could be the first such case in the United States, a California State Bar panel is set to decide whether to deny an applicant a law license solely on the basis of his undocumented immigration status.

Sergio Garcia was brought to this country from Mexico when he was 17 months old by his parents, the Daily Journal (sub. req.) reports in a lengthy article. The state bar only recently began asking applicants about their immigration status, so there apparently are other California lawyers already admitted to practice (the newspaper talked to at least one) who aren’t legal residents of the U.S.

Sponsored by a relative, Garcia says he’s been waiting 17 years for a green card and expects it could be another 15 years before he gets one. Noting that the vetting process is supposed to be about character and fitness to practice, he says “What was my moral duty at 17 months?”

The issue of whether an undocumented immigrant can properly be admitted to practice also appears to turn on federal constitutional powers and the authority of a state’s supreme court to regulate the profession within its boundaries.

A federal law, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, says state agencies can’t extend so-called public benefits including professional licenses to undocumented aliens. But is the California Supreme Court a state agency?

“I don’t think that’s been addressed,” says professor Gerald Uelmen of the Santa Clara University School of Law.

Updated on July 8 to correct the name of the Santa Clara University School of Law.

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