Two bills sit on the Governor of California’s desk that could drastically improve life for undocumented immigrants living in the state. One bill would allow undocumented individuals to obtain a driver’s license and the other makes them eligible to practice law in the state. The former will have a wider impact but the latter is a greater threat to the common perceptions of undocumented immigrants, specifically to the rhetoric of illegality.
Of course, some people are equally outraged by both of these laws. The trend in the last decade or so has been to criminalize undocumented immigrants, making it harder for them to live in the United States with the hopes that they would “self-deport”. We have seen a growing number of laws that monitor immigrants within the border, such as requiring legal status to secure a drivers license or proof of legal status when stopped by police. These laws want to make it easier to catch an undocumented person committing a crime.
This is important because it is not a criminal offense to be undocumented, violations of immigration law are civil offenses. So, it is not true to say “illegals” are criminals just by the fact that they are here “illegally”–hence the APs decision to drop the use of the word. In many ways, this is unfortunate for the millions of undocumented because it means they have no right to due process or counsel once the deportation proceedings have begun.
Ok, undocumented aren’t criminals but should they be lawyers? Well, the judicial branch has conflicting views. The California Supreme Court deferred to the legislature and the Department of Justice advised against it. The DOJ cites the 1996 immigration reform law that prohibited granting any “public benefit” to undocumented, which includes professional licenses–unless otherwise authorized by the state. This led Sergio C. Garcia, the would-be lawyer, to begin lobbying for California’s AB1024. With a week left in the session, the bill was drafted and passed and made it to Gov. Brown’s desk.
California, like 49 other states and DC, has no citizenship or residency requirements for lawyers. In fact, the Supreme Court tends to rule against citizenship and residency requirements for professional licenses. In 1981, a Federal Court ruled it unconstitutional for Louisiana to require US citizenship to get a dentistry license. And in 1985, a law requiring residency to practice law in New Hampshire was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. This makes sense because personal characteristics, such as legal status, do more to restrict access (ie fetter the market) than to protect the public–ostensibly the purpose of professional licensing.
Much like a driver’s license, a professional license is the state’s way of sanctioning, or legalizing, a particular practice. Like a driver’s license, it is meant to protect the public by ensuring that certain requirements are met and the individual is qualified to engage in that activity. Being in violation of a civil law, such as not paying rent or breach of contract, does not impair one’s ability to drive any more than it impairs one’s ability to practice law. Though, arguably, enough violations could indicate “poor moral standing” and thus disqualify someone from the bar.
Normalizing undocumented immigrants is not the same as normalizing crime. It is the first step to bringing these individuals out of the shadows, taming the rhetoric of illegality, and addressing the problems with our immigration system that created this mess to begin with. I only hope that more states and more professional licensing boards follow suit.