CHICO, Calif. (AP) – Sergio Garcia is a civil litigation lawyer in California who represents clients in car accidents.
He doesn't practice immigration law, which Garcia says surprises many people because of his high-profile battle to become the first known immigrant in the country without legal permission to become a licensed attorney.
"No way, man," Garcia said. "Not after what I've been through."
Garcia, 37, a native of Mexico, won his license after a bruising five-year legal and political battle that included a ruling in January from the California Supreme Court. It came after Gov. Jerry Brown signed a specially crafted bill passed by the Legislature to let Garcia practice law.
Soon after, Garcia rented an office in the rural Northern California college town of Chico, hired a secretary, hung his law degree on the wall, dressed in natty suits appropriate for an attorney, and began airing commercials on Spanish-language television and radio.
He also works as a motivational speaker, garnering modest fees to give talks about his experience growing up in the U.S. and Mexico and of achieving his dream to practice law.
"I would do it again," Garcia said. "But it wasn't easy. It still isn't."
Garcia said he hopes his experience will inspire others living in the country without permission to follow his example.
His experience led California lawmakers to pass a separate bill allowing other professionals living in the country without permission — including doctors, architects and dentists — to receive licenses to practice. The law goes into effect Jan. 1.
Top attorneys represented Garcia and he received support from national immigration groups in his push for a law license. But he faced opposition from the Obama administration, which filed court papers urging the California Supreme Court to reject his application before state lawmakers passed the special law for Garcia. Federal law says noncitizens can't receive public benefits, including professional licenses, unless a state specifies otherwise.
Garcia said making the transition from a national figure for immigration rights to the everyday toil of making a living has been difficult at times.
"There are studies that show depression sets in after people experience their 15 minutes of fame," he said. "I'm no different."
Garcia, who is single, said he was the target of numerous insults and several threats during his high-profile legal battle. He said he still receives an occasional anonymous phone call or email asking if he pays his taxes, which he says he does.
"I also pay payroll taxes and health insurance for my assistant," he added.
Garcia continues to battle bureaucratic tangles over taxes and payments — and critics who object to his presence in the U.S.
Students in the Model United Nations club at a private San Antonio high school had invited Garcia to speak, but the school administration canceled the appearance after Garcia said he wouldn't sign an IRS W-9 form that requires him to swear he is an American citizen.
He asked the school to use the tax identification number he received from the IRS for his business after opening his office, but it declined.
School President Bob Windham told the AP last month that the school's auditor said paying Garcia as an individual using his company's tax identification number would be improper and jeopardize the institution's tax-exempt status.
The U.S. Department of Justice made the same argument to the California Supreme Court in opposing Garcia's law license: U.S. citizens are not allowed to knowingly hire workers who live in the country without permission.
Larry DeSha, a former lawyer with the California State Bar, also formally opposed Garcia's receiving a license on the same grounds. DeSha argued that someone living in the United States without permission could not enter into contracts with any U.S. citizen or others living here legally.
Wendy Feliz, a spokeswoman with the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Immigration Policy Center, dismissed those concerns, arguing that workers living in the United States without legal permission have contributed billions of dollars in income taxes.
"People have been knowingly hiring nannies, gardeners, field workers and others forever," Lopez said. "It just so happens he's a lawyer."
Garcia arrived with his parents in California when he was an infant and returned to Mexico when he was 9. He returned to the U.S. when he was 17 and has remained in the Chico area where his father — a naturalized U.S. citizen — operates a successful beekeeping business. Garcia applied for a green card in 1994 and is hopeful he will finally receive one in the next several weeks.
After graduating from a public high school, Garcia earned a paralegal certificate from Chico State University. He attended Cal Northern School of Law in Chico at night, graduating in 2009. He passed California's notoriously difficult bar exam on his first attempt that same year and applied to the California Supreme Court to practice law, something he has always wanted to do.
"To be quite honest, I never had a plan B, and that's one reason I fought so hard," Garcia said. "Now, when I talk to students, I tell them to always have a plan B because plan A may be harder than you think."