Skip to main content

Should undocumented immigrant practice law?

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
updated 3:29 PM EDT, Fri September 6, 2013
Sergio Garcia poses in front of the California Supreme Court building on Wednesday.
Sergio Garcia poses in front of the California Supreme Court building on Wednesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Should an illegal immigrant be able to practice law?
  • Navarrette: In the case of Sergio Garcia, my heart says yes but my head won't go along
  • He asks how does Garcia show respect for law when he has lived in defiance of rule of law?
  • Navarrette: In the immigration debate, we must separate the individual from the idea

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette

(CNN) -- Since I first became aware of the maddening case of 36-year-old Sergio Garcia, who seeks admission to the California Bar, I've tried to convince myself this accomplished young man -- a law school graduate who passed the bar exam -- should be able to practice law despite the inconvenient fact that he is an undocumented immigrant.

Yet, I can't. My heart goes out to Garcia. But my head won't go along.

This week, the California Supreme Court held a hearing to decide whether Garcia is eligible for a law license in California in a case that is certain to impact the fate of other undocumented immigrants in pursuit of legal careers.

Garcia is opposed by the Obama administration's Justice Department, which cites a 1996 law that prohibits states from providing undocumented immigrants with public benefits, including professional licenses. He is supported by California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who argues the issuance of law licenses isn't a federal matter but up to states to decide.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

A decision from the court is expected in the next 90 days.

Garcia came to the United States from Mexico with his family when he was a toddler. He returned to Mexico with his mother when he was 9 and came back to the U.S. when he was 17. He applied for citizenship. That was back in 1994, and he is still waiting to hear from Uncle Sam.

He told AP that he isn't worried about being deported because his case is well-known and he had notified immigration officials that he is in the U.S. awaiting a decision on his citizenship.

While he waits, he has been working hard toward his goal of becoming a lawyer. He paid for his studies at Cal Northern School of Law in Chico, California, by working at a grocery store.

Yet, in the immigration debate, we must separate the individual from the idea. The individual -- Garcia -- looks like a keeper. The idea -- that one who has lived most of his life outside the law can practice law -- is problematic.

This young man wants to put his hand on a Bible and pledge the following: "I solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of an attorney and counselor at law to the best of my knowledge and ability."

That oath comes from the California Bar Association, which states: "It is the duty of an attorney to ... support the laws of the United States and of this state ... maintain the respect due to the courts of justice and judicial officers ... (and) never to seek to mislead the judge or any judicial officer by an artifice or false statement of fact or law."

How is Garcia supposed to uphold "the laws of the United States" when he is, by his mere presence in this country, in violation of federal law?

How does he pledge to show respect for "the courts of justice" when, for most of his life, he has lived here in defiance of the rule of law? And how can he claim that he won't "mislead" a judge or judicial officer when living in the United States illegally requires deception on a daily basis?

If Garcia had more respect for the profession that he is seeking to join, he might have second thoughts about whether he is eligible to join it. Yet, he seems to feel entitled to a law license and everything that comes with it.

I've had contact with Garcia in the past, and I'm worried that he's lived in the United States for so long that he's picked up some bad habits from his fellow Americans.

Several months ago, Garcia posted on Facebook: "I have a career lined up with the potential of offering employment to U.S. Citizens, no criminal record anywhere and have been in limbo for the last 19 years. Where the hell is my American Dream? Lol"

I responded: "Not to pick a fight, Sergio. But your question is very much part of the problem. 'Where's mine? Where's my American Dream? Gimme, gimme.' You're an American after all. I'll tell the kid at Starbucks, the one with the sense of entitlement, to scoot over and make room."

I continued: "If America gives you the chance to live the Dream, don't you think it's fair for her to ask for something in return? She decided that she wanted your RESPECT, and that this could be demonstrated by you respecting her laws -- the same laws you say you want to spend your life serving and defending in a courtroom. Don't you see the irony there?"

Garcia responded: "Let me get done with lunch so I can address your entitlement issues."

He never got back to me. In his public comments, I haven't seen evidence that Garcia has considered for one minute the possibility that this case is about issues larger than himself, his plans, his dreams.

I don't think he has. And if the court decides in his favor, he never will.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT