At stake in this case was an interpretation of a 1996 immigration law that prohibits undocumented individuals from obtaining professional licenses from government agencies or with public funds unless a specific state law contravenes this order. Garcia, who arrived in the United States with his father as a teenager, filed for a visa in 1995. However, due to a clerical error, no number was ever given to him. He has been seeking citizenship since 1994, and his quest remains ongoing. He attended law school while working at grocery stores and on farms, eventually passing the bar exam. He then sued for his right to join the bar and become a practicing attorney with the assistance of the State Bar of California and the California Attorney General's office.
This case pitted pro-immigration reform state officials against federal defenders of the law. When oral arguments were held in September, a majority of the California Supreme Court expressed doubts about whether Garcia could prevail based on the lack of California state laws protecting his position. However, a new law that took effect on Wednesday in California allows undocumented workers to obtain professional licenses. With the new law in effect, the Supreme Court found for Garcia, giving him the immediate right to practice law within the state.
This advancement of the rights of undocumented workers follows a string of victories throughout 2013. Many states now allow undocumented individuals to obtain driver's licenses and a new pathway towards citizenship has been implemented for many young people. But these successes have not been as sweeping as many reform advocates would have liked. Indeed, comprehensive immigration reform that has been trumpeted for years by the Democratic party has yet to be voted on in the House of Representatives after it easily passed the Senate. Due to differing opinions from lawmakers about how best to pass these sorts of reforms and an Obama administration that continues to enforce some anti-immigrant laws, many advocates have been looking towards the judicial system for aid.
Even with successes for immigration reform advocates and undocumented workers like today's decisions, not everything gets resolved immediately. The ruling very narrowly defines the parameters that allow Garcia to become a lawyer, stating that it is only because of the new law that they found in his favor. Additionally, other federal laws preclude Garcia from being hired by another law firm or practicing law outside of California. It further remains unclear whether he will be allowed to argue cases in federal court due to the questionable nature of his law license's standing in federal court due to the 1996 law. Further, similar cases regarding the issuance of professional licenses in Florida and New York find immigration advocates facing off against Obama administration officials who say that the licenses cannot be issued unless a specific state law calls for their allowance.
But this has not dampened the positive spirit of Garcia and other reform activists. Garcia plans to open up his own law practice where he will specialize in personal injury law. His trailblazing example offers the opportunity for others undocumented individuals in California to follow in his footsteps and seek professional licenses of their own. Though the debate over immigration in the United States is far from over, this ruling adds another dimension to the ongoing conversation.