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 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT