By Rafael Olmeda on 1/6/2014
Jose Godinez-Samperio came to the United States with his family when he was 9. He was still a child when his visa expired.
But he never left. He stayed in the Tampa area, became an Eagle Scout, graduated at the top of his high school class, and earned a law degree at Florida State University. Now he wants a license to practice law.
When the California Supreme Court granted a bar card to a Mexican immigrant without a green card last Thursday, Godinez-Samperio said he was ecstatic, and hopeful that Florida will follow suit.
Godinez-Samperio passed the Florida Bar exam in 2011, and the Board of Bar Examiners found that he met all the requirements for admission. But the board questioned whether someone who is not in the country legally could be granted a license, and asked the state's high court to make the decision. The Florida Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in October, has not said when it will rule.
"They've been very good about not giving any indication which way they're going to go," Godinez-Samperio, 27, said in a telephone interview Friday. "They've been very impartial. But I'm hopeful they'll look favorably on what was decided in California. I have followed all the rules. I should get my bar card."
Sergio C. Garcia, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, fought for four years to obtain a license to practice law in California. The state legislature passed a law last year specifically approving an exemption for aspiring lawyers from a federal rule barring licenses for immigrants without legal status in the United States. That cleared the way for Thursday's ruling.
Because federal law prohibits undocumented immigrants from working in the U.S. legally, Garcia can only practice law for free – unless he does it outside the country.
As Godinez-Samperio's case made its way to the Florida Supreme Court, his legal situation changed. In December 2012, he obtained a Social Security card, a work permit and continued residency under President Obama's "deferred action" policy halting the deportation process against undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children.
"Garcia can practice law but can't work, while Jose can work but can't practice law, yet," said Sandy D'Alemberte, Godinez-Samperio's lawyer.
Like his client, D'Alemberte said he won't try to predict what the Florida Supreme Court will rule, but he was encouraged by some of the questions he was asked during oral arguments in October.
"If he got a Social Security number, if he is able to obtain a Social Security number, then what is the issue here?" asked Justice Jorge Labarge.
"Your honor, you have just summed up my argument," D'Alemberte replied.
Critics of illegal immigration have decried the California decision and continue to oppose Godinez-Samperio's effort to practice law in Florida.
"Someone who is not in this country legally has no business representing anyone else in a court of law," said William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration. He called the president's deferred action policy "an unconstitutional abuse of power" and said Godinez-Samperio is not facing deportation only because immigration law is being ignored.
Godinez-Samperio didn't entirely disagree — while he said he can no longer be classified as "undocumented," he added he is not on a path to citizenship. Unless Congress acts, he said, there's always a chance that a change in policy will put him right back where he was before – without work authorization and subject to deportation.
Florida Bar rules do not require an attorney to be a citizen, and they are silent on the issue of whether they need to show proof of legal immigration status. The rules that restrict undocumented immigrants are federal, Florida Justice Labarge said in October, implying that Florida can grant Godinez-Samperio the right to practice law without giving him the right to charge for his services in the U.S., which would remain up to the federal government.
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