Garcia (Patrick Tehan / AP)
San Francisco— The California Supreme Court granted a law license Thursday to a man who has lived in the U.S. illegally for two decades, a ruling that advocates hope will open the door to millions of immigrants seeking to enter other professions such as medicine, accounting and teaching.
The unanimous decision means Sergio Garcia, who attended law school and passed the state bar exam while working in a grocery store and on farms, can begin practicing law immediately.
It’s the latest in a string of legal and legislative victories for people who are in the country without permission. Other successes include the creation of a path to citizenship for many young people and the granting of drivers licenses in some states.
“This is a bright new day in California history and bodes well for the future,” the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles said in a statement.
The court sided with state officials in the case, which pitted them against the White House over a 1996 federal law that bars people who are in the U.S. illegally from receiving professional licenses from government agencies or with the use of public money, unless state lawmakers vote otherwise.
Bill Hing, a law professor at the University of San Francisco, said the court made clear the only reason it granted Garcia’s request is that California recently approved a law that specifically authorizes the state to give law licenses to immigrants who are here illegally.
The new law, inspired by Garcia’s situation, took effect Wednesday.
It was unclear how many people would qualify to practice law under the ruling and whether it would influence other states.
Garcia, who plans to be a personal injury attorney in his hometown of Chico, said he hoped the decision would serve as a “beacon of hope” to others in the same situation.
But some questions remained unresolved, such as whether Garcia can appear in federal court or in other states.
Federal law makes it illegal for law firms to hire him.