June 5, 2015 / 1:20 AM / 5 years ago

First undocumented immigrant to become California lawyer earns green card

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A lawyer who became the first undocumented immigrant in California to earn a law license received a green card on Thursday after more than a 20-year wait, exempting him from deportation and allowing him to expand his career.

Sergio Garcia, a Mexican native, became a personal injury attorney in Northern California in 2014 after the California legislature passed a statute allowing undocumented immigrants to become attorneys. But under federal law, he was unable to become an employee and was therefore forced to work independently.

With his new permanent-resident status, Garcia can join a firm, a typical step for young lawyers. But for now, the 38-year-old lawyer said he planned to keep a solo practice.

“It’s great to have the opportunity to join one if I want to, but so far, so good,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be my own boss.”

Garcia applied for his green card in 1994 after immigrating at age 17, but the application became mired in a backlog. After passing the California bar exam, one of the toughest in the country, he decided to fight for his license to practice law, a struggle that drew national attention and a favorable ruling from the California Supreme Court.

President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012 to allow immigrants who came to the country illegally as children to earn work permits. Garcia did not qualify for the program because he was too old by the time it started.

He might have qualified under an expanded version of the initiative that was announced in November, but it was blocked in February by a federal judge.

Garcia, who represents field workers, janitors and nannies in Chico, 90 miles north of Sacramento, recently filed his first lawsuit and won a $25,000 insurance payment for a woman injured in a car accident. He said he enjoyed helping other “underdogs” like himself, many with immigrant backgrounds.

“It’s always the little guy that gets the bad deal unless they have someone to look out for them,” he said.

Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Peter Cooney

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