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Can Undocumented Americans Become Lawyers?

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on September 04, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Today, the California Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the provocative question of whether an undocumented immigrant in California can become a licensed lawyer.

Emotions are running high on both sides of the increasingly pressing immigration issue.

The State Bar of California and the California attorney general are on aspiring attorney Sergio Garcia's side. The U.S. Justice Department, among others, opposes his admission to the bar.

The Undocumented Law School Graduate

Garcia's parents brought him to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 17-months-old. He was approved for a green card, but has been waiting for it for nearly 19 years, according to NPR. In the meantime, he worked his way through college, law school, and passed both the California State Bar exam and moral character application.

But he needs to become licensed to practice law in the state.

Public Funds

The state Supreme Court is in charge of licensing lawyers. California law allows anyone with some form of legal status -- including people with a student visa -- to get a law license, reports NPR.

However, the court has been reluctant to license Garcia because of a federal law passed in 1996 that prohibits entities funded with state money from granting undocumented immigrants professional licenses. Since the court operates with public money, the U.S. Department of Justice says it's barred from licensing Garcia.

Annual Dues

The California attorney general's office, which supports Garcia's admission, doesn't believe the federal law is applicable in this case, reports NPR. The AG's office claims annual dues lawyers pay to the State Bar, and not state money, funds the court's licensing of attorneys.

If that's true, then the federal law would no longer apply.

A decision is expected in about three months. Regardless of which way it rules, the California Supreme Court's decision will likely influence similar cases pending in other states and weigh in on our national dialogue on immigration reform.

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