SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF/AP) — The California Supreme Court on Thursday granted a law license to a man living in the United States illegally who graduated from law school and passed the state bar exam, meaning Sergio Garcia can begin practicing law despite his immigration status.

The Mexican-born Garcia had challenged a 1996 federal law that bars people living in the country illegally from receiving professional licenses from government agencies or with the use of public funds, unless state lawmakers vote otherwise.

Shortly after the court heard arguments in the case, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a state law that authorized the granting of the license. The new law went into effect Wednesday, and Thursday morning, Garcia’s case became the first approved under the legislation.

The Obama administration had opposed granting him a license.

Garcia said his case is about showing other immigrants that hard work and dedication mean something in the U.S. He has received support from State Bar officials and California’s attorney general.

He hasn’t been alone in his quest. The court’s decision notes two other cases where people living illegally in the U.S. applied for admission to the State Bar.

The Obama position in Garcia’s case came as a surprise to some, since it adopted a program that shields people who were brought to the U.S. as children, graduated from school and have kept a clean criminal record from deportation and allows them to legally work in the U.S.

At 36, Garcia is too old to qualify for the program. But he and the immigration groups supporting him argued that he is exactly the type of candidate the Obama administration had in mind.

He has said he was stunned by the administration’s opposition. “I was very upset by,” he said earlier. “I worked hard and have never been a burden to the state.”

Garcia arrived in the U.S. illegally 20 years ago to pick almonds with his father and worked at a grocery store and in the fields while attending school.

He became a paralegal, went to law school and passed the bar on his first try. He applied for citizenship in 1994, and is still working toward that goal.

At a hearing in September a majority of the state Supreme Court justices appeared reluctant to grant Garcia the license, saying the law prohibits them from doing so unless the Legislature acts.

The court is in charge of licensing attorneys in California.

Lawyers for the federal government argued that Garcia was barred from receiving his license because the court’s budget is funded by public money.

TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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