Aspiring attorney Sergio Garcia has taken his minutes of fame to encourage what attorneys often love most — a debate. And Garcia wants a single ground rule.
Garcia is fighting for a license to practice law in California despite his undocumented status; his case is under consideration by the state Supreme Court. He has passed the bar exam and the character study conducted by the Committee of Bar Examiners.
But in the blitz that now surrounds a case likely to establish a precedent, Garcia has asked the media to drop the word "illegal" in reference to him and his immigration status.
His response to reporters asking for interviews is now well-rehearsed: Only if they promise not to use the "illegal immigrant" wording in covering his story, he tells them. On Wednesday, that cost the New York Times an interview when a reporter said he couldn't make such a promise.
The debate over immigration terminology has itself become increasingly charged. Some media organizations have campaigned for elimination of what they call the "I-Word". They argue that using the word "illegal" to refer to immigrants who may not have papers for a variety of reasons is misleading and unfair, and words like "undocumented" make fewer assumptions.
"As soon as people hear the word 'illegal' they don't want to hear reason," Garcia said. "I'm trying to open up an intellectual debate, to bridge a gap between us and people who have these preconceived notions that we're a sub-class, that we're monsters. We're people in the process of adjusting our status; we're caught up in this thing."
At 35, Garcia has had an application for a visa that would grant him legal residency pending for half of his life, and he is now too old to qualify for a work permit under the Obama directive announced June 15.
If Garcia wins a favorable ruling from the California Supreme Court, his case could establish a right to an attorney's license for immigrants in a position like his. Yet, Garcia, who is polite but assertive, also sees an opportunity to help shape the national media conversation around immigration.
Garcia learned what it was like to be an outsider after he was brought to Northern California as a baby. His father found work in Chico orchards, and when Garcia started school, he said felt like a "brown kid in a white world." When he was 9 years old, the family returned to its village in the state of Michoacán in western Mexico. After Garcia turned 17, they came back to the Chico area.
Garcia's father, who then had legal status and would eventually become a U.S. citizen, sponsored 17-year old Sergio in an application for a visa. In less than three months, Sergio received word that he had met all requirements and his "petition" was pending. In other words, Sergio would have to wait until a "visa number" became available for a petitioner born in Mexico under the quota system that's used.
Almost 18 years later, Sergio Garcia is still waiting, but in the intervening time has completed community college, earned a paralegal certificate, graduated from Cal Northern School of Law and passed the bar exam. While attending Chico State, Garcia self-published a book packed with dating tips; the sales earned him about $5,000, he says.
In 2009, the State Bar of California asked the state Supreme Court to rule on whether Garcia can be granted a license to practice law without violating federal statutes. Garcia's Walnut Creek attorney, Lindsay Slatter, argues that a license can be granted, though it won't serve as a work permit. Her client can legally work as an independent contractor or pro bono.
"An undocumented immigrant can legally earn a living in the U.S., although not as a conventional employee in a traditional employer-employee relationship," says Slatter's brief filed Monday with the court.
At issue is a federal statute prohibiting state and local agencies from granting undocumented individuals professional licenses. Similar cases are pending in New York and Florida; Slatter argues the statute doesn't apply because law licenses aren't granted by an agency of the state.
The Committee of Bar Examiners also filed a brief pointing out that licenses are approved by the court, not a state agency.
Slatter makes another argument that strikes at the heart of public perceptions. "Garcia's continued presence in this country is a civil infraction, not criminal behavior," her brief points out. "Garcia did not commit any criminal offense when his parents brought him into the country as a child."
By telephone, Slatter said, "The only crime is if you're caught crossing illegally as an adult; that is a criminal act."
Her brief argues that the federal government can't require states to enforce civil immigration laws by withholding law licenses.
She also argues in the brief that the "proper nomenclature for Sergio Garcia is a 'family sponsored immigrant.'"
The brief says there are "distinctions among undocumented immigrants, and there cannot be one public policy that encompasses all of them."
Garcia said he grew up with a mother who often told fables — stories with lessons in morality. He believes the term "illegal immigrant" shames young people and fosters hostility, and he has a duty to himself and others to object.
"I've been in contact with thousands of kids across the nation who suffer from anxiety and depression" because of that language, Garcia said.
Garcia has been interviewed by reporters from Spain, Argentina, Brazil and major outlets in California and elsewhere in the nation. Since the flurry of stories, he's been contacted via social media by young people who share an undocumented status. He worries how they react to hateful comments that are sometimes posted online in response to articles about him.
Most journalists, including local reporters who work for outlets that routinely use the illegal-immigrant phrase, have agreed to eliminate the wording in their stories about Garcia. In a few cases, Garcia feels he was betrayed.
The AP Stylebook, which most mainstream daily newspapers use as the decisive authority on word use, continued in 2011 to approve the use of "illegal immigrant" and discourage use of the terms "illegal alien" and "undocumented worker."
When his parents planned to return him to the Chico area in 1994, Garcia said he balked, but had no choice. In his Michoacán village, Garcia often went to school hungry. But he was a rising star, who, by age 17, had won a small scholarship to continue studying and been elected president of his student body.
"Why would I want to go to a country where I wasn't wanted?" he said. "I went from being a big fish in a small pond to being an invisible fish in a big pond."
As a high school senior in the farming town of Durham, Garcia said he was invited to apply for admission to UC Berkeley and Stanford, and both schools indicated he'd qualify for scholarships by virtue of his GPA. He told the schools that his application for legal status was pending; it then became clear he wouldn't receive financial help.
Garcia and his attorney note that the federal statute that is at the heart of his case was designed to keep undocumented immigrants from receiving any kind of public benefit. Garcia calls himself a "poster child" for self-sustaining immigrants.
By telephone, Slatter said that although Garcia didn't seek publicity, his case became public at a time when people are increasingly asking for answers. "He is someone who has followed all the rules, paid his own way," Slatter said of Garcia.
"His is the story we want to tell others as the example of what hard-working, self-sufficient immigrants contribute to this great country," she states in her brief.
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