TALLAHASSEE — In a unique case followed closely by immigration experts, the Florida Supreme Court will consider whether an undocumented immigrant can practice law in Florida.
Jose Godinez-Samperio, 26, of Tampa is the undocumented child of immigrants and a "dreamer," in the jargon of the DREAM Act. His story puts a vivid human face on the ambiguity of U.S. immigration policy.
He is ready to be a lawyer except for one thing: He's not a U.S. citizen.
He has a law degree but no Social Security number.
He has volunteered as a legal services aide, helping victims of domestic violence. But he has no work permit.
In the hallowed Supreme Court chambers Tuesday, the aspiring attorney was a front-row observer. At the end of an hour of pitched legal argument, it was clear that his case won't be resolved before next month's election, when America's immigration policy could change again.
Godinez-Samperio is trying to start his legal career based in part on a June order by President Barack Obama, who allowed certain undocumented immigrants under age 30 to stay in the U.S. without fear of deportation.
Born in Mexico, he came to America with his parents when he was 9. Seventeen years later, his story took center stage before Florida's highest court, the first case of its kind in the state.
"It was a sense of history," Godinez-Samperio said outside court afterward. "I think this is very similar to when the first African-Americans, or the first women, were admitted to practice law."
An Eagle Scout who speaks fluent English, Godinez-Samperio was first in his class at Armwood High School in Tampa, graduated from New College in Sarasota and Florida State University law school, where a favorite teacher and mentor was Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, a former FSU president and American Bar Association president who's now Godinez-Samperio's attorney.
"He's done everything he's supposed to do. He's complied with all the rules," D'Alemberte said. "What else would you want in a lawyer?"
The Florida Board of Bar Examiners, a 15-member panel that checks the character and fitness of would-be lawyers, initially granted Godinez-Samperio a waiver of a requirement to prove his citizenship status after he disclosed he was not a citizen.
But the bar examiners were unable to reach a consensus on whether to grant his application. They are asking the Supreme Court for guidance.
"It seems very strange that we would have taken all these steps and bring a person right to the edge and then push him off the cliff," Justice Fred Lewis said.
D'Alemberte told justices that his client can't apply for U.S. citizenship unless he leaves America for 10 years.
Godinez-Samperio's dream is to be an immigration lawyer.