TAMPA — He came to the United States as a fourth-grader who spoke only Spanish. He needed a year to learn English, then refused to let anything slow him down again.
He became the 2004 valedictorian at Armwood High School in Seffner, an anthropology major at New College, a law student at Florida State University. He passed the bar exam last year on his first try.
But when he applied for admission to the Florida Bar, José Godínez-Samperio was stopped in his tracks.
The Florida Board of Bar Examiners refused to consider his application, instead asking the Florida Supreme Court to settle a question:
Are undocumented immigrants eligible for admission to the Bar?
The decision will be closely watched in Florida, where the board has required applicants to produce proof of citizenship or immigration status since 2008.
Godínez-Samperio, 25, said he knew admission would be difficult. But he thought he should try.
"I knew if I didn't try, I'd always have a 'no,' " he said. "And if I tried, I'd at least have a 'maybe.' "
His legal team argues the board is abiding by an "unwise" policy that was not properly adopted in the first place. They say that Florida has a long history of helping immigrants in similar situations, such as creating a special avenue for Bar admission to Cuban-Americans educated in Cuban law schools.
Former FSU president Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, taught Godínez-Samperio in law school and now represents him in the Supreme Court case. D'Alemberte said it's important to note that he ended up with the undocumented status through no fault of his own.
He came with his parents to the United States and made the best of his situation, D'Alemberte said.
"Why are you going to keep a kid like that out of the Bar?" said D'Alemberte, a former state legislator and past president of the American Bar Association.
Officials with the Board of Bar Examiners — a separate agency from the Florida Bar — did not return a phone call Wednesday. The Florida Bar has not taken a position on the matter, a spokeswoman said.
Godínez-Samperio's said his parents were professionals in Mexico — his mother was a dentist, his father a veterinarian — but could not afford to feed their two children.
So they came to the United States 16 years ago on tourist visas and never left. They settled into rural Hillsborough, his father taking a job milking cows on a dairy farm and his mother working at a sliding-glass door manufacturer.
Neither speaks English, though Godínez-Samperio remembers they sat with him after school every night — his father coming in with mud on his boots, his mother covered in dust — and helped with science and math homework.
Because he is undocumented, Godínez-Samperio can't get a drivers license.
He can't legally work, which meant he never bothered to run for student government at New College because the positions were paid. He could not obtain a Bright Futures scholarship or college loans, so he sought private foundation scholarships to pay his way.
Ask him what he does for fun, and he mentions only the camping trips he used to take with the Boy Scouts. He shared a dorm room with two other students and studied most weekends.
In law school, D'Alemberte remembers him as the student who always sat near the front of the class, always participated, always stopped by the office or dropped an email to get a point clarified.
Said Godínez-Samperio: "I didn't have the privilege of being an average student."
He has not tried to hide his status. Last year, he testified to a state legislative committee that was voting on an immigration proposal.
"I am undocumented, unapologetic and unafraid," he said then.
Godínez-Samperio lacks legal standing to apply for citizenship and is someone who would have benefitted from the Dream Act, a decades-old proposal to allow undocumented children to obtain permanent residency by enrolling in college or serving in the military.
The Obama administration last year said it would be more lenient in the cases of certain undocumented immigrants, including those who arrived in the country as children.
In a recent high-profile case, a North Miami Senior High School valedictorian threatened with deportation learned Wednesday she will be able to stay in the United States for two more years.
Godínez-Samperio said his experience shaped his goal of becoming an immigration lawyer, something he has dreamed of since high school. What he could do if he did get his credentials is unclear, however, given that federal law forbids him from working for pay. His attorneys point out that he could provide pro bono legal services or could practice in other countries.
And if the court issues an opinion against him? He said he doesn't know what he'll do. He said he hopes to put a personal spin on an issue more often debated in impersonal terms.
"I'm an immigrant," he said, "and I don't think a lot of people see the human face."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.