Florida lawmakers have an opportunity to reward the hard work and determination it takes for someone to become an Eagle Scout, be a high school valedictorian, obtain a law degree and pass the bar exam.
Jose Godinez-Samperio has achieved all of those lofty goals but is being denied a chance to practice law because his parents brought him to the United States when he was 9 years old and remained in the country illegally.
A bill passed by the Senate and now being considered by the House would allow immigrants who meet certain residency requirements to obtain the license needed to practice law in Florida. House members should rise above the charged rhetoric surrounding the immigration debate and vote to give Godinez-Samperio and others like him the chance they deserve.
Godinez-Samperio’s parents emigrated from Mexico and overstayed their tourist visas. He learned English and became an Eagle Scout and valedictorian at Armwood High School. He obtained a law degree from Florida State University and remains in this country legally under the amnesty order President Obama issued in 2012 for the so-called “dreamers,” the children brought to this country by their undocumented parents.
He has a Social Security number and driver’s license but is not a U.S. citizen, and admission to the Florida Bar has been denied because of a federal law banning immigrants from obtaining certain public benefits, such as a law license. Last month, the Florida Supreme Court ruled against Godinez-Samperio but urged lawmakers to create an exception to the law that would grant the license. Bear in mind, as American Bar Association president Sandy D’Alemberte says, the state grants licenses to doctors, nurses and other professionals who are not U.S. citizens. And California, faced with a similar situation, created an exception that allowed qualified immigrants to practice law in that state.
Last week, the Florida Senate moved toward creating that exception. It passed a measure that would allow immigrants brought to Florida as minors, and who have lived in the state longer than 10 years, to become eligible to practice law in Florida. That would allow Godinez-Samperio to achieve his goal of becoming an attorney in Florida.
Now it’s up to the House, where Speaker Will Weatherford, a Republican from Wesley Chapel, supports a change in the law but faces opposition from some House members who favor strict immigration laws.
Many of those lawmakers also oppose a measure passed in the House and now being considered in the Senate that would grant in-state college tuition rates to the children of immigrants in the country illegally. Current law punishes those students by requiring they pay the higher out-of-state rates, despite having lived in Florida for years. Those students have earned their high school degrees and are deserving of the in-state rate, a measure supported by Weatherford and Gov. Rick Scott, neither of whom can be accused of having a liberal bias.
Godinez-Samperio has seized every opportunity since arriving in this country, and by all accounts would make a fine addition to the Florida Bar. Lawmakers should clear a path that allows him to give back to the country and the state that allowed him to pursue his dreams. And Scott should sign the measure into law.