Ethics Quiz: The Strange Case of the Illegal Lawyer

“Hey Fred! Here comes your attorney!”

Sergio Garcia was brought across the Mexican border into California, at the age of 17 months, by his illegally immigrating parents. Thanks to the muddled and inconsistent enforcement of its immigration laws, Garcia graduated from Chico State University, a Florida law school and passed the California State Bar exam in July 2009., all while being in the country illegally. Now a special committee of the California Bar has recommended that he be licensed to practice in the state, but the California Supreme Court has reservations, and wants to read briefs on the issue. That issue is also the Ethics Alarms Quiz this weekend, and I must admit, it is a question I never thought would rise to status of a debate:

Should an illegal immigrant be allowed to practice law?

Garcia’s supporters, which include his attorney and distinguished legal ethics authority Jerome Fishkin, have what they believe are compelling arguments for the answer to be in the affirmative:

  • The only official requirements for practicing law in California are a law degree  from an accredited law school, a background check that doesn’t turn up anything horrifying,  a positive finding of “moral character,”  a Social Security number ( though an applicant can get an exemption). Nothing says an applicant has to be a legal citizen.
  • The usual “Dream Act” justifications: Garcia didn’t come here voluntarily, he has amassed solid credentials, he considers himself an American, and has worked diligently to get to this point.
  • He is awaiting a green card, though it could take up to 15 years for it to be approved.

On the other side is this: Of COURSE an illegal immigrant shouldn’t be granted a law license! Has the world gone stark raving mad?

I’m sorry. I’m better now.

I sympathize with Garcia, and I would hate to be in his position. Until, however, the position illegally immigrating parents place their children in by breaking U.S. laws is correctly perceived as a disadvantageous one, people will continue to cheat the system and bring their children into the country and a life of deception.  Lawyers are sworn to uphold the law, and a past of scofflaw behavior almost always will automatically bar an applicant for admission from the practice of law unless there has been a sharp reversal of conduct and convincing proof that the applicant is a different person from the lawbreaker past. In Garcia’s case, however, he will still be breaking the law, as he has virtually his entire life. He may feel like an American, but he isn’t one. The process of becoming a legal citizen may be long and arduous, but that’s unavoidable. A strong argument could be made that a life-time illegal immigrant should never be eligible for lawyer status, and I my make it, but right now I don’t have to. The argument that a currently illegal immigrant shouldn’t practice law is stronger still.

A Los Angeles Times article noted the many legal issues, raised by the court, that would be created by a licensed lawyer who was not a legal citizen, such as,

“Would the issuance of a license imply that Garcia could be legally employed as an attorney? What are the legal and public policy limitations, if any, on an illegal immigrant’s ability to be a lawyer? May other state agencies that license professionals also admit undocumented immigrants?

Fortunately, we don’t have to cross those bridges until we come to them, which should be never. Of the many benefits of purloined presence within Americas borders that should not require a protracted debate to reject, the ability to be part of the legal system should top the list. No, illegals, no matter how sympathetic they might be, must never be allowed to practice law.

The fact that this seems to be tough ethics quiz question for California helps explain why that state is in such a mess.


Pointer: ABA Journal


Graphic: Ukraine Consultant

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

14 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Strange Case of the Illegal Lawyer

    • SMP, it appears that he has applied through LEGAL channels. His green card application was filed ten years ago.

      As for the ethics question, I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be permitted to practice law. He’s met the California requirements. It seems more unethical to move the goalposts post hoc.

      • I think it’s a case of California leaving out a requirement—legal citizenship—that was assumed. At any rate, violating the law makes it tough to meet the morals requirement, and should disqualify him.

        • Assumed or not, it isn’t explicitly stated in the requirement. It seems silly that a legal organization wouldn’t have crossed their Ts and dotted the Is if this wasn’t intended to be a requirement. Would this also preclude a multinational corporation from having their inside counsel participate in a California case even if she passed the bar?

          As for your suggested disqualification based upon the moral requirements, what law did he knowingly violate?

          • Huh? Did he turn himself over to immigration authorities? He was in the country illegally, without a green card. That’s an ongoing legal violation. There’s no amnesty, even in California. His status was illegal, and he knew it.

            The Cal. Bar didn’t specifically prohibit talking cattle and little green men from Mars, either. No rule can account for every anomaly.In such cases they will look to the likely intent, and nobody seriously believes the bar intended to leave the door open for illegals.

            There are special rules for foreign lawyers.

            • My inquiry concerned the specifics regarding his immigration status. Yes, he may have been in the country illegally but when did he learn this? If his green card application was sponsored by a relative for over a decade I would assume he took the necessary steps as a teenager to rectify this issue. Additionally, if he wasn’t supposed to remain in the US while his application was being processed then you’d have a point. What would your son do if you told him tonight, “Do you know why we’re really home schooling you? It’s because you were born in Greece.”

              No rule can account for every anomaly

              True, but the fact that foreign lawyers are allowed exceptions acknowledges that this clause couldn’t be included in the statute. Besides, in your state of Virginia, non-US citizens can take the bar exam. It appears that this mess isn’t constrained to liberal California.

            • When did he find out he was illegal and when did he apply for the green card? If he did both when he was a minor I think he has done everything he could do. If he found out when he was a mionr and waited untill just now to apply then thats a different story.

              But either way he shouldnt be approved to pratice law until his immigration status is setttled and then if he was here as an adult and didnt take the proper steps to resolve his status he shouldnt be approved.

    • Is there no requirement that colleges and universities check that all enrolling students prove that they are either citizens or legal residents or have a student visa?
      Also can an illegal resident receive a student loan? If so how can a graduate pay off the loan if the employees were made to enforce immigration laws, or if he or she was expelled overseas?

  1. Gregaroy: I understand how you’d want to give this guy a break. There are any number of illegals who came to this country as kids, were raised in a more-or-less American environment and would probably make good citizens. But the fact remains that they AREN’T citizens. They are here in defiance of federal laws that exist to protect American citizens. If we start making exceptions left and right, then the law means nothing. It becomes a matter of selective enforcement and all the corruption that this invariably entails. Moreover, it serves as a further inducement to other foreigners to enter illegally, thus subjecting Americans to more job competition, overloaded public facilities and, inevitably, higher crime rates and social upheaval. I have nothing against Garcia and I wish him well. But he must square himself with the laws of this nation before he can aspire to becoming a part of it.

    • SMP, I’m with you about the slippery slope of selective enforcement . But there isn’t any evidence in this case that the US wants him to leave the country. As such, he isn’t violating any federal laws.

      The argument that illegal immigration leads to higher crime rates and social upheaval is unfounded and inappropriate.

  2. Gregory: As Jack pointed out, that’s just a case of legalism. The intent and spirit of the law is evident. As to the latter, I stand by it. I used to work with Customs on the Texas border in the early 1990’s. Every time they shut down the border for a few days (yes, it CAN be done when allowed) crime dropped as much as SIXTY PERCENT. Not just petty crimes, but in like percentages with violent felonies. If you think that illegal immigration doesn’t pose threats to Americans, you might ask any farmer or rancher in a border county in Texas or Arizona. They have to fort up in their houses at night and, come morning, clean up the messes and count the damage and livestock losses. Sometimes worse. Then, if the “migrants” make it to a “sanctuary city” (like Houston) that place becomes a trash bin very quickly. Nobody but an idiot would venture into a Houston city park after dark unless their purpose was the buying and selling of drugs; the drugs and the sellers both originating south of the border. I’ve seen these things first hand, Greg. This isn’t some political made-issue. We’re talking about a virtual invasion that threatens the foundations of this country. It’s what happens when a nation loses or relinquishes control of its borders… and thus, its sovereignty.

    • Intent and spirit is conflicted if the US allows for attorneys certified outside of this country to practice law.

      The latter is irrelevant to this specific issue and your self-serving statistics don’t address my previous objection. Just because there was a supposed 60% decrease in the crime rate that coincided with the border closure doesn’t prove that illegal immigration results in higher crime rates. That would be the same thing as me saying that tonight’s solar eclipse affected the outcome of the Clippers/Spurs game that followed.

  3. it seems the laws don`t apply to illegals, they think the world owes them…Make him become a legal citizen, then give him his status of an American lawyer. America can`t support millions of illegals.

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