By Noreen O'Donnell
(Reuters) - Illegal immigrants can be licensed to practice law in California under one of eight bills expanding immigrant rights that were signed by Governor Jerry Brown on Saturday.
The California Supreme Court, which finalizes requests of applicants to be licensed as a lawyer in California, is now authorized to approve qualified applicants regardless of their immigration status.
Other new laws prohibit law enforcement officials from detaining immigrants based on federal government instructions except in cases of serious crimes or convictions, and make it illegal for employers to retaliate against workers on the basis of their citizenship.
"While Washington waffles on immigration, California's forging ahead," Brown said in a statement. "I'm not waiting."
The new laws, including the one letting undocumented immigrants become lawyers, could set a precedent for the nation. They are part of a push to increase immigrant rights in the strongly Democratic state. About 38 percent of California's population of 38 million is of Hispanic descent.
On Thursday, Brown signed a law making undocumented immigrants eligible to apply for drivers licenses. California, which will join at least nine other states when the law takes effect in 2015, expects 1.4 million people to apply for licenses over three years.
A study by the University of Southern California has found that more than 2.6 million people, most of them Latinos, lack legal status in the state.
Assemblyman Luis Alejo, a Democrat from Watsonville, said the new laws illustrate the change in California over the last 20 years.
"The bills that were signed by the governor today show that California is bucking the trend that we've seen in other states over the last few years - Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, all states that have enacted legislation that really restricted or attacked immigrants in those states," Alejo said.
California is doing what it can at the state level in the absence of immigration reform by the U.S. Congress, he said.
Earlier this year, the Democratic-led U.S. Senate approved a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants living in the United States illegally, but the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is unlikely to follow suit.
The California law that allows illegal immigrants to practice law grew out of a case of an undocumented Mexican immigrant, Sergio Garcia, who was brought to the United States as a baby and later graduated from a California law school. He has received the support of the State Bar of California and the state attorney general.
Critics of Garcia's bid to gain admission to the California bar included the U.S. Justice Department, which opposed it in a brief filed with the state's Supreme Court last year.
While Garcia may now be admitted to the California bar, two other Mexican immigrants — one in New York and another in Florida — are pursuing similar cases.
(Editing by Tom Brown and Mohammad Zargham)