Skip to main content

Should undocumented immigrant practice law?

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
September 6, 2013 -- Updated 1929 GMT (0329 HKT)
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
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 1750 GMT (0150 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT