Undocumented Immigrants Can Now Practice Law in California
New years bring new laws and a new law taking effect in California has raised eyebrows and ire as it allows undocumented immigrants to begin practicing law in the nation’s most populous state.
In October, California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed eight bills granting expanded rights to foreign individuals living illegally in the state. The controversial legislation approved by the governor includes allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, prohibiting employer retaliation against workers on the basis of their citizenship and barring state and local law enforcement from detaining immigrants based on federal government instructions, except in cases in which serious crimes or convictions have occurred.
But perhaps the most controversial of all the new laws taking effect on January 1 is AB-1024, which authorizes the state Supreme Court, which finalizes requests of individuals seeking to become lawyers in the state, to admit all qualified applicants as attorneys, including “an applicant who is not lawfully present in the United States.”
“This is my life’s dream come true,” Sergio Garcia, the Mexican-born plaintiff in the case culminating in today’s law change, told NPR. Garcia, who was brought to the United States illegally when he was a toddler, was approved for a Green Card 19 years ago but is still on the waiting list. He excelled academically growing up in California and four years ago he passed the California Bar exam. He was granted a law license but it was subsequently rescinded after his immigration status was discovered. “One of the two,” Garcia added. “I’m going for US citizenship next. I want to be a full part of this country.”
The new law has alarmed many conservative observers.
“He can’t say he is going to fulfill his duties as an attorney when one of those duties is to uphold all federal laws, when he’s here illegally,” Larry DeSha, a former prosecutor with the State Bar of California, told NPR. “And no one can administer the oath to him knowing he’s going to be illegal the minute he puts his hand down. And the other thing is clients can’t pay him money. And any client who finds out that he is illegal has to fire him under federal law.”
Other California lawyers welcomed the change. San Francisco construction litigation attorney Wakako Uritani, a Green Card holder born in Japan, said the new law doesn’t go far enough.
“If they make it through the process of studying law and passing the bar exam, they should be granted American citizenship as well,” Uritani told Moral Low Ground. She added that she believes “it’s a great idea to allow undocumented immigrants to practice law in our state because it shows that they care about our country and want to learn and uphold the law.”
Although ideas like Uritani’s are still considered radical in much of the nation, she points to the fact that many immigrants who serve in the US military are granted citizenship as something of a precedent.
“Lawyers uphold the law just as our troops defend the Constitution,” Uritani added.