An Illegal Immigrant Paralegal?

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The career of Sergio C. Garcia has become extremely interesting to all lawyers and paralegals across the country after Garcia, an illegal immigrant was certified to practice law by the State Bar of California. It raised questions about licensing of illegal immigrants also in other professions. The request of the State Bar of California sent for routine approval to the California Supreme Court raised eyebrows across the country. In a unanimous decision, the state high court asked the bar to explain why an illegal immigrant should be provided a legal license and also invited other parties to opine on the matter. The move opened a national debate on immigration policy. The case is also important, because, irrespective of his request for license as a lawyer, currently Garcia works as a paralegal.

Garcia was brought to the United States from Mexico when he was only 17 months old. He has applied for legal status, which process can take from five to fifteen years. Garcia fulfills ‘almost' all requirements required to practice law in California. A spokeswoman for the bar said Garcia has a JD from an accredited law school, has successfully passed a background check, and has been found to be of positive moral character. The requirements of the bar at California include providing a Social Security number, but also include a clause by which an applicant may request an exemption from providing a Social Security number. The requirements do not include providing immigration status.

Garcia passed the written test of the bar and its moral examination. Following which the bar sent the recommendation for licensing Garcia to the California Supreme Court with the information that Garcia was undocumented.

The court has asked the bar to answer the issues:
  • Would the issuance of a license imply that Garcia could be legally employed as an attorney?
  • What are the legal and public policy limitations on an illegal immigrant's ability to be a lawyer?
  • May other state agencies that license professionals also admit undocumented immigrants?
The bar would be responding this week, on Wednesday, May 16, and the court, may also hold oral arguments. Cases similar to Garcia are pending undecided in Florida and New York.

While holding that in all probabilities the court would refuse to grant a license to Garcia before he acquires resident status, Deborah Rhode, a legal ethicist told the LA Times, “Some of these cases are really heart-wrenching on the facts, especially undocumented immigrants who are brought over to this country at a young age, who go through the school system, who managed to triumph over a lot of obstacles, and who have now invested all this money in a degree.”

Garcia's lawyer told the media, “We hope that the California Supreme Court adopts the state bar's finding that Sergio meets all legal qualifications to become a California lawyer … We will be filing our brief on his behalf.”

Garcia's case, being in the legal profession is of immense interest, not only because he is already practicing as a paralegal in California, but also because of his case affecting the law to a degree where qualified illegal immigrants may join the legal profession in U.S. without restrictions.

Garcia's case also raises questions related with online law courses by universities, for example, the new online law degree course offered to foreign lawyers by the Washington Law School. If Garcia can become a practicing lawyer in U.S. before he gains the status of a resident, then anyone doing a fully accredited online paralegal degree or diploma from any part of the world may be licensed as a paralegal within the U.S.

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