Federal officials have opposed the attempt of a Mexican immigrant living in the U.S. without legal permission to become a lawyer in California.
The Department of Justice issued its opinion in a brief released Thursday in the case of Sergio Garcia before the California Supreme Court.
Garcia has completed law school and passed the state bar exam. The final step to becoming a practicing lawyer is approval by the California Supreme Court.
Garcia's application is pending, but justices are questioning whether his immigration status means they must reject him.
Garcia, 35, was brought illegally to the United States by his parents as a toddler and applied for legal residency in 1995 when he was 17. He worked odd jobs and wrote self-help romance books to pay for an education without student loans.
He didn't expect his immigration status to interfere with his dream of being a civil litigator until the State Bar of California started asking for the immigration status of prospective applicants before he took the bar exam.
The DOJ argued in its brief that federal law prohibits people who lack legal immigration status from obtaining certain state benefits, including professional licenses, unless state law explicitly grants those benefits.
Garcia's attorney Jerome Fishkin said California does have a provision in its business and professions code that allows law licenses regardless of immigration status.
``It's an escape hatch for law applications and law admission for people who are not qualified to have Social Security numbers, which essentially are undocumented and certain out of country immigrants,'' Fishkin said.
He criticized the Department of Justice for failing to explain why that provision doesn't apply in the case of Garcia.
Garcia's supporters conceded that a law firm or government agency could not legally employ him, but they say he can still work as an independent contractor with his own clients.
The DOJ disagreed, pointing to laws that can punish clients who knowingly hire immigrants without work authorization.
The examiners of the State Bar of California and state attorney general's office have supported Garcia's application.