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California sends bill to let illegal immigrants practice law to governor

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - A California bill to let undocumented immigrants become lawyers passed its last legislative hurdle on Thursday and will be sent to Governor Jerry Brown for his signature.

The legislation was prompted by the case of an undocumented Mexican immigrant, Sergio Garcia, who was brought to the United States as a baby and later graduated from a California law school. He has won the support of the State Bar of California and state Attorney General Kamala Harris in his quest to be admitted to practice law, over the objections of the U.S. Justice Department.

The bill passed the state Assembly on Thursday in the waning hours of the legislative session. It would authorize the California Supreme Court, which finalizes applications to become licensed as a lawyer in the state, to admit qualified applicants regardless of their immigration status.

"By the grace of God, I was born on this side of the border," said Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who introduced the bill in the Assembly. Were it not for that accident of fate, Gonzalez said, she might have been prevented from becoming a lawyer.

The bill previously cleared the state Senate. It was not clear if Brown, a Democrat, would sign the legislation.

The efforts to deal with illegal immigrants in California come just months after the Democratic-led U.S. Senate passed a landmark immigration overhaul that includes a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants currently living illegally in the United States. However, the measure faces little chance of passage in its current form in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Garcia is challenging the application of a federal law prohibiting government spending for the benefit of illegal immigrants, even on such matters as professional licensing. The law, on which the state Supreme Court recently held hearings, has been interpreted to mean that the state cannot license applicants to be lawyers if they are undocumented.

Attorneys of the 36-year-old Garcia have maintained that the language of the law was vague and should not be interpreted as applying to law licensing.

In a hearing before the state Supreme Court earlier this month, State Bar attorney James Wagstaffe pointed to case law that he said showed that statutes such as those cited by Garcia's opponents were not meant to regulate attorney licenses.

U.S. Justice Department attorneys argued that the statute in question was clearly intended to bar illegal immigrants from being issued law licenses, which because they are finalized by the state Supreme Court, require public funding.

Garcia, who earned a law degree from Cal Northern School of Law in Chico, California, north of Sacramento, lived in the United States until the age of eight or nine and then returned with his family to his native Mexico.

At 17, Garcia re-entered the United States with his father, who was then a permanent U.S. resident and later became a citizen.

His father filed a petition seeking an immigrant visa for Garcia in 1995. Garcia is still waiting to receive the visa, which would allow him to seek permanent residency and ultimately citizenship.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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