Meet The Man Who Changed The Law For Millions In The United States

Sergio Garcia made history and international headlines when he became the first undocumented immigrant admitted to the California State Bar. The nearly five year battle that went all the way to the California Supreme Court took resilience, grit and determination – attributes Garcia learned as a child.

Garcia was born in Mexico in 1977 and came to the United States with his parents, unlawfully, when he was just a toddler. Admittedly, he was too young to remember much about those early days, but he recalls being poor, moving around frequently and wearing donated, hand-me-down clothes.

“Somebody gave us these black garbage bags filled with clothing. Unfortunately, the only clothing my size in that garbage bag was a little yellow dress. And so you know, you wear a little yellow dress or nothing at all and run around naked. I always joked that it destroyed all my political aspirations because there is a picture of me in a dress at age four.”

Sergio

When he was nine, his parents decided to move their family back to Mexico. But to Garcia’s surprise, not all of them were returning.

“When we crossed the border into Mexico, my father was like, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m just dropping you off, I’m going back’. And we said, ‘Wait a second! You never mentioned that part.’ And so he did, he dropped us off – all of us.”

A few years later, his older brother moved back to the States to be with their dad, leaving Garcia to be the man of the house at just 11 years old. He took the new responsibility seriously, helping his mom carry his sister to the hospital when she got stung by a scorpion and borrowing money from the neighbors to keep food on the table.

“I would go to borrow money from them. And they always made fun of me asking if I was going to pay them in marbles or what? I would always reply back and say, ‘Oh no, my dad will pay you back.’ And then would ask, ‘Who is your dad?’ And I would say ,‘Salvador.’ And they would say, ‘Why didn’t you tell us that to begin with? Here you go.’ And they would hand me some pesos. I felt great because even though I was a little kid, I knew they trusted my dad’s name and knew he would pay them back.”

The maturity and initiative he showed at home carried over into school, where he became very active in student government and convinced the local government to give his school free books. The city council, which housed the government, was right next to a jail. And it was what he learned about the inmates there that inspired him to become an attorney.  

For immigrants living in America, he offers this advice: Do what you have to do as long as it’s legal and doesn’t require you to compromise your values. Let people help you along the way, especially your family. And don’t forget who was there for you when you were struggling.

“I would see a bunch of people locked up and I would ask my mom, ‘What did these people do?’ Some people were neighbors or people we knew. And my mom would tell me they were people in the wrong place at the wrong time pretty much. And you knew for a fact that some people who got caught would bribe the officials and get out the next day, but people who were too poor to bribe the officials would stay there, which was not right. And it was then that I decided to become a lawyer. I was so innocent back then as a teenager with torn shoes and an empty stomach. But I wasn’t going to allow the government to railroad people like that.”

With that dream in his heart, Garcia finished secondary school and graduated with the highest grades in his class. His father came to Mexico to help him celebrate, just as he’d done for his elementary school graduation. But this time was different.

“After the party, he told me we were going back to the U.S. We ended up coming back to Northern California, but it was this whole horrible experience crossing over the border. We were pretty much held hostage by the authorities there and they treated us very poorly. I was thrown in the back of a truck with seven other people and we were under coverage for about four hours, not knowing whether we were going to survive or not .After that experience, my dad and I didn’t talk for a long time. I spent a lot of time around the house crying, like what the heck were we doing here? I was the president of my school back in Mexico, I received a government scholarship, which was unheard of. Now, all of a sudden, we are here. I didn’t speak English anymore and of course, when I tried to go to school, they said, ‘You need to redo another year of school because Mexican schools suck, and besides you don’t speak the language.’ So I had to redo another year, which also happened to me in Mexico – they forced me to redo a year. And so I did my junior and senior year of high school.”

Garcia went on to graduate from Durham High school in 1996 with a 3.9 GPA, in spite of the fact that he didn’t speak English, and received letters to attend several colleges, including UC Davis, Berkeley, Stanford and Chico State.

“They said based on my grades they would give me a full scholarship, and of course they had no idea that I didn’t have my documents. Once I disclosed that, every single school shot me down,” he said. “After that, I said I was just going to work with my dad in the fields. It was a couple of days before college started and mom thought it was a shame and not the right thing for me to do. She encouraged me to attend a community college.”

Taking his mom’s advice, Garcia enrolled in Butte College where he turned a two-year education into a four year stay.

“I spent four years in school because I couldn’t afford the classes. I was too naïve to dump any of my classes because I didn’t even know what classes I was supposed to be taking. It was four years later that I finally said, ‘I see a lot of students come and go, and I am still here, what gives?’ And the registrar finally said, ‘Well, Mr. Garcia, let’s take a look at your transcript,’ and they were like, ‘Whoa. You have three degrees. Why haven’t you left yet?’ And I said, ‘Well, nobody told me I could leave.’ I was that innocent you know.”

After Butte, Garcia went on to California State University, Chico (Chico State) where he completed a paralegal certificate program. That led him to an internship with the Community Legal Information Center in Chico, California, where he met Dane Cameron, an attorney who not only encouraged him to enroll at Cal Northern School of Law – a local school with a night program which Garcia didn’t even know existed – but also wrote him a stellar letter of recommendation.

“I got in and told them that I didn’t have the status and they said it wouldn’t be a problem because the state bar doesn’t ask that question. And besides, they said, it looks like you have been waiting 15 years for your green card, I am sure in four years, it will come through.”  

Garcia graduated from law school in 2009, passed the bar on his first try (a stellar accomplishment) later that same year and was preparing to begin his career when he found out he couldn’t get his license because he was an undocumented immigrant. This was also despite the fact that he’d been waiting for his green card for nearly two decades.

That was the beginning of a multi-year battle.

After lobbying the California State Legislature to change the law and taking his fight all the way to the California Supreme Court, in 2014, Garcia won the right to practice law, blazing a trail for other undocumented immigrants to do the same and cementing his legacy.

“When the [media] asked me how blessed I must feel, I told them this is not about me, but about opening the doors for others. It is about breaking down that barrier that kept people like me from fulfilling their dreams. And now there are at least a dozen other attorneys who have benefited from my case,” he said with emotion.

“I wanted doctors and teachers and other professionals to be able to realize the same dream. We started working on what is now SB 1159 that just went into effect this year [2016]. This benefits about 1.85 million undocumented professionals in the state of California. It opens the door for all professionals in California to have a license to practice – physicians, teachers, lawyers, architects, engineers, beauticians. Of course there is some controversy around it. But when people ask me what my legacy is, I tell them about SB 1159. It’s my baby. It opens up the door for potentially two million people. This one will far outlive me.”

His case will actually be added to the law books in California with some schools like University of California Davis making his case required reading material as part of its curriculum. Garcia, who received his green card about a year after his case was decided, has opened his own law firm in Chico, California and recently opened an office in Sacramento.

sergio2

While his story has been celebratory, particularly among the Hispanic and general immigrant community in the United States, his win also garnered negative reactions.

“The worst that happened was a situation that occurred at 2am in the morning. Some people tried to break into my house, which I am sure was done to scare me — and they accomplished that because I ended up sleeping with a knife under my bed for a couple of weeks after that,” he recalls.

He also received nasty voice messages with what he describes as ‘every single cuss word you can ever think of’, but he was ready for it. And as he worked through some of the negative reactions he received, he continually made it a point to focus on everything that was positive about his story and his life.

“I was reading a message to my wife from a gentleman in Sacramento asking if it will be at all possible to have his picture taken with me, or for me to give him an autographed picture of me that could hang right next  to a picture of his family and César Chávez because in his mind, I am the next Chávez.”

Indeed.

Garcia also tells us about a quote made by the noted civil rights activist’s son, Fernando Chávez in an interview. “ I remember the quote because I loved it and I was so flattered by it.  Fernando said ‘Sergio Garcia is a continuation of my father’s work. You will no longer find him in the fields, but you will find him in the courtroom’. And so it was incredibly touching and flattering to have him feel that way and he was very supportive.”

He is now living his childhood dream, albeit a slightly modified version.

“Most people think with the problems I have had, I would be practicing immigration law but I don’t. I help people in auto accidents and practice civil litigation. With the dream I had as a young boy, I later realized I couldn’t deal with the thought of actually getting a criminal back on the streets to rape or be violent or kill again and that it would be on me. That made me lose interest. We do civil litigation and review auto accident claims and we feel good about that just because it allows us to have a stable life and be able to donate to our foundation — the Sergio C. Garcia Foundation — which gives out scholarships to students.”

After his journey, Garcia has reframed his idea of the ‘American dream’ and challenges us to do the same.

“I no longer call it the American dream. I used to call it that until I realized there are people from all over the world in this country. Then I thought about it and said, ‘Hey, I’m Mexican and I have the same dream that people from anywhere in the world have, from India, from China, from anywhere that come here.’ So, it is not an American dream, but a universal dream to better themselves and to fight for a better life for themselves and their families.”

For immigrants living in America, he offers this advice: Do what you have to do as long as it’s legal and doesn’t require you to compromise your values. Let people help you along the way, especially your family. And don’t forget who was there for you when you were struggling.

“That is very important especially in our Hispanic community. Insecurity causes young people to, as soon as they become successful, be ashamed to walk around with mom and dad or ashamed of speaking Spanish anymore, or they are dating a white Caucasian female and don’t want to bring them home to meet mom and dad. You have to keep your feet on the ground. I am proud of where I come from. The fact that I come from nothing makes me even more proud than if I had things given to me, like if I had a ‘rough’ start of a couple million dollars like some politicians I know, that would have been bad [WINKS].”

Image: Courtesy Sergio Garcia

Rae Oglesby is a freelance multimedia journalist and the founder + chief storyteller for Oglesby Communications Consulting. She can be reached at rae@oglesbyconsulting.com.