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Friday, Sep 21, 2018
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Lawmakers must decide whether illegal immigrants can practice law

TALLAHASSEE — It’s now up to the state Legislature whether a Tampa man who stayed in the country illegally can become a Florida lawyer.

The state Supreme Court Thursday ruled that federal law prohibits Florida from granting a license to practice law or similar “public benefits” to Jose Godinez-Samperio and others like him.

Godinez-Samperio, who graduated from Florida State University’s law school, came to the United States on a tourist visa from Mexico with his parents when he was 9. The family never returned.

He passed the written part of the state’s bar examination in 2011.

Florida’s Board of Bar Examiners asked the court for an advisory opinion on whether to admit him.

The opinion does note a loophole: Federal law allows a state to pass its own law to “ ‘override the federal barrier’ and provide a state public benefit to unauthorized immigrants.”

“There is no current state law that meets the requirements … and permits this court to issue a law license to an unauthorized immigrant,” said the per curiam opinion, meaning by the whole court.

Sandy D’Alemberte, a former FSU president and law dean, has represented Godinez-Samperio.

“He’s done everything the rules require of him,” D’Alemberte said. “I guess the next step is to look to the Legislature for action.”

“My heart goes out to Jose and to all those similarly situated,” said Donald Weidner, dean of the Florida State University College of Law. “It also goes out to all those whom they might have served.

“I join in Justice Labarga’s poignant request for relief from the Florida Legislature,” he added.

Representatives of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said their in-house lawyers are reviewing the decision.

The deadline to file bills for this legislative session – noon Tuesday – has passed, though a legislator might offer an amendment to an existing bill to achieve the same goal.

D’Alemberte, who also was a state representative, suggested legislation could be introduced as a proposed committee bill at anytime during session.

State Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, did not say whether she would try to push some relief for Godinez-Samperio this session.

“I believe today’s ruling epitomizes the flaws in our nation’s broken immigration system and the need for comprehensive immigration reform,” she said through a spokesman.

“By all accounts, Jose has proven himself to be a hard-working law school graduate of high honors who simply wants to continue contributing to our state and nation,” Cruz added. “I share in the disappointment over today’s ruling.”

Justice Jorge Labarga – who came to the United States as a Cuban refugee in 1963 – wrote an impassioned concurring opinion about the court’s “inequitable conclusion.”

He said that while he agreed federal law tied the justices’ hands, he identified with Godinez-Samperio’s plight and noted some differences.

“When I arrived … my parents and I were perceived as defectors from a tyrannical communist regime and were received with open arms,” Labarga wrote, in an opinion that Justice Barbara Pariente joined.

Godinez-Samperio, “however, who is perceived to be a defector from poverty, is viewed negatively because his family sought an opportunity for economic prosperity,” Labarga added.

“It is this distinction of perception, a distinction that I cannot justify regarding admission to The Florida Bar, that is at the root of” Godinez-Samperio’s problem.

Godinez-Samperio received a work permit in 2012 as part of President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which halted the deportation of immigrants brought to the United States as children. He is working as a paralegal at Gulf Coast Legal Services, which provides free legal help to low-income people in the Tampa Bay area.

“I’m feeling very disappointed, but more than anything I’m feeling outraged at Congress, that they have failed to take action on immigration reform … and actually I’m feeling outraged at the president as well,” Godinez-Samperio said, noting that the U.S. Justice Department filed a brief in the case stating that the license shouldn’t be granted.

“If I were able to practice law I would be able to help so many immigrants navigate the legal system,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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