Why shouldn’t California Gov. Jerry Brown sign a bill that would let illegal immigrants obtain law licenses?
Several reasons. It is at least problematic that someone who lives outside the law should be able to practice law. They’d have to take an oath to uphold “the laws of the United States” when they’ve already violated them.
It seems a bridge too far, one that Brown might not be eager to cross. As a graduate of Yale Law School, the governor probably has his own reservations about the concept of undocumented lawyers.
But the most compelling reason for Brown not to sign this bill came to me as I was listening to a conservative radio talk show host explain how, despite his opposition to giving illegal immigrants “amnesty” or any other public benefit or accommodation, he might make an exception in the case of Sergio Garcia.
Having completed law school and passed the bar exam on his first try, Garcia is seeking admission to the California Bar. A few weeks ago, the California Supreme Court held a hearing to decide whether Garcia – who has the backing of state Attorney General Kamala Harris – is eligible for a law license in California. While a decision isn’t expected for a couple of months, most of the judges signaled that they are inclined to agree with the Obama Justice Department. The administration opposes Garcia’s quest for a law license, claiming it is because Congress passed in 1996 a law that prohibits states from providing illegal immigrants with public benefits including professional licenses. But the judges also said that, if the state Legislature wanted to pass a law to give licenses to the undocumented, lawmakers were free to do so.
So the Legislature passed the bill. Now everyone is waiting on Brown.
Garcia is used to waiting. The 36-year-old came to the United States from Mexico with his family when he was 17 months old, later returned to Mexico with his mother when he was 9, and returned when he was 17. Then he applied for citizenship, with the help of his father, who was by then himself a U.S. citizen. That was in 1994, and Garcia is still waiting for a decision from the federal government. But the young man has put his time to good use. He went to college and law school, where he paid tuition by working at a grocery store.
It’s an impressive story. There is no argument there. In fact, right about now, you are probably asking yourself not how we can get rid of someone like Garcia but rather how we can get our hands on 100,000 more immigrants just like him. Maybe by swapping the same number of spoiled and entitled American kids? But what country in its right mind would take that deal?
Garcia’s story clearly made an impact on the radio talk show host.
“If anyone deserves a chance to stay in this country and contribute to it,” he said, “it’s this guy.”
The host argued that Garcia was precisely the kind of illegal immigrant who should be allowed to pursue a profession because he was ambitious and he had applied himself. The young man was trying to make something of his life, he said.
Is that so? What about the millions of others who apply themselves to scratching out an existence in low-wage jobs and, in doing so, make the lives of the native-born that much easier? Don’t have to do the lawn? Thank your gardener. Able to work outside the home without having to worry about who will care for the children? Thank your nanny. Enjoy your dinner out? Thank the immigrants toiling in the kitchen.
In the immigration debate, elitism is alive and well. And the bill that would clear Garcia to practice law proves it.
I routinely meet illegal immigrants who work three jobs – two a day, and one on weekends – to support their families. You had better believe they’re ambitious. Their main ambition is to survive, and someone who works that hard with the odds stacked against them to honor his responsibilities deserves just as much respect as someone who goes to law school and passes the bar. As we discuss what to do with the undocumented, Americans always seem to want to help the folks we can most easily relate to, not the ones who most deserve our help.
A special accommodation for illegal immigrants who want to be lawyers is not just unworkable. It is undemocratic.