LOS ANGELES As a teenager in Northern California, Sergio Garcia worked in the almond fields and in a grocery store, earning his way through college and then law school. He passed the California bar exam on his first try, something just half of all candidates do.
But when it came time to apply for his law license, Garcia, a Mexican immigrant, encountered a formidable hurdle: Because he lacked legal status, he could not become a lawyer.
That changed Thursday when the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a law passed in fall 2013 by the Legislature allowed Garcia, 36, to practice law. What it did not do is address the fact that he legally cant be hired in America.
The strange turn of events demonstrates the complicated patchwork of immigration laws that is emerging as Congress remains stalled on an overhaul of the immigration laws and states and courts are stepping in and deciding what rights should be granted to the estimated more than 11 million immigrants living illegally in the country.
Courts in Florida and New York are grappling with similar cases involving immigrants seeking to become lawyers, and Robert Morgenthau, the former district attorney of Manhattan, has urged New Yorks governor and Legislature to pass a law like Californias.
Several states have begun to expand opportunities for immigrants living here illegally, after a wave of laws passed several years ago in Alabama, Arizona and Georgia and other states to crack down on illegal immigration.
Unauthorized immigrants can receive in-state college tuition in several states, and 11 states and the District of Columbia allow such immigrants to obtain some kind of drivers license.
Garcia, in a telephone interview, said he felt that despite the ambiguities, he would be free to open his own practice.
I can finally fulfill my dream and also leave behind a legacy so that an undocumented student 20 or 30 years from now will take it for granted that they can be an attorney, he said. Theres a lot to celebrate. I can open my own law firm, and thats exactly what I intend to do. Theres no law in this country restricting entrepreneurs.
In its ruling, the court said that California had paved the way for Garcias admission to the bar in October when the Legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill saying that qualified applicants could be admitted to the state bar regardless of their immigration status. The court went on to suggest that immigration status should not be considered any differently from, say, race or religion.
But in its lengthy ruling, the court appeared to leave aside the issue of employment, saying only that we assume that a licensed undocumented immigrant will make all necessary inquiries and take appropriate steps to comply with applicable legal restrictions and will advise potential clients of any possible adverse or limiting effect the attorneys immigration status may pose.