California’s first undocumented immigrant lawyer shares his story in new documentary

California's first undocumented immigrant lawyer is the subject of new documentary celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. (Credit: KGO via CNN Newsource)
Published: Sep. 22, 2022 at 7:53 AM PDT
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SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) - In 2014, Sergio Garcia became the first undocumented immigrant to practice law in California. He is now sharing his story in a new documentary to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month.

In 1978, when Garcia was 17 months old, his parents first crossed the border with him from Mexico into the United States. He applied for legal residency in 1994, but his application remained pending for nearly 19 years.

His parents never could have imagined that one day, he would be practicing law in California.

“Somebody called it the David vs. Goliath part two, and David came on top again. Thank God!” Garcia said.

Like David in the biblical story, Garcia was an underdog. He was an undocumented immigrant who went to law school and passed the bar exam.

The Goliath in his story is the California Supreme Court.

An undocumented immigrant had never been allowed to practice law in the U.S. He turned that into his first unofficial fight as a lawyer.

“The Obama Administration came in against me and sent their attorneys from the Department of Justice to oppose my licensing,” Garcia said.

For almost five years, Garcia fought the government and also harassment.

“People were calling in the middle of the night saying they were going to kill me and my whole family,” he said.

In 2014, Garcia made history.

“We ultimately won that case. That allowed me to be the first undocumented attorney in the nation,” he said.

Garcia says all those years he kept telling himself that being an attorney was his “life’s dream” and that he was going to “see it all the way through or die trying.”

He knows what being close to death feels like because, during a border crossing with his mom at 17 years old, he almost lost his life.

“We were just placed next to each other like sardines. Four or five of us passed out. The two or three that remained still conscious, we were praying out loud to make it out alive,” he said.

Garcia writes in his book how, decades later when he became the first undocumented immigrant to practice law in California, he knew his work was just the beginning.

“I got a hold of the California legislature. We started talking. We put forth another piece of legislature that ultimately became law in 2016. That allows all undocumented professionals in California to be licensed,” he said.

Garcia’s case has inspired other states to do the same.

Now he is a U.S. citizen, sharing his story with a documentary, “American Dreamer,” and giving back to the next generation.

“My wife and I, we have the Sergio C. Garcia foundation. Last year, we donated about a $1 million and we help students who are trying to make their dreams come true,” he said.