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Florida man at center of immigration debate a guest at Tuesday's State of the Union

President Barack Obama is sure to bring up the subject of immigration in tonight's State of the Union address, and for one young idealistic Tampa man, it will be a very emotional moment.

Jose Godinez-Samperio, 26, won't be watching Obama on TV. He'll be sitting there in the House of Representatives, as the special guest of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.

That is exactly where he belongs, because this Floridian is, in many ways, the human face of America's complicated and unresolved debate over immigration.

Godinez-Samperio's case is being followed closely across the country. A native of Mexico, he came to America with his parents at age 9.

First in his class at Armwood High in Tampa and an Eagle Scout, he graduated from Florida State University's law school, but he cannot be admitted to the Florida Bar because he's not a U.S. citizen. The Board of Bar Examiners sought guidance from the state's highest court.

"This is a historical moment," he said. "I liken it to when the first African-Americans were admitted to the Florida Bar. I don't think it's easy for anyone."

He's seeking his law license in part because of an order the president issued last June, which said undocumented immigrants under age 30 who were in the United States could stay without fear of deportation.

Last October, he petitioned the state Supreme Court, but the justices have not ruled. A legal question is whether a Bar license is considered a "public benefit," which undocumented immigrants are barred from receiving under a 1996 federal law.

"Jose is an inspiration," Castor said. "Unfortunately, he's also an example of our broken immigration system."

While waiting for a ruling, Godinez-Samperio got federal approval for a work permit. That enabled him to apply for and get a Social Security card, which changed everything. He sure looks like he's on a path to citizenship that we keep hearing about.

"When I got it, I almost began to cry," he said Monday, recalling the slights and humiliations he has endured because he didn't have that little card the rest of us take for granted. "Basic things, like trying to get a library card or a post office box."

The nine-digit number enabled him to get a Florida driver's license, but none of that will gain him entrance to what he wants most: a Florida courtroom.

In his latest filing with the Supreme Court last month, Godinez-Samperio's lawyer, former FSU president Sandy D'Alemberte, noted the latest developments and wrote: "The court is now free to admit the respondent to the Florida Bar, there being no barrier under federal law to his using his bar admission."

Godinez-Samperio wishes someone in political power would champion his case. Someone like Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who will give the Republican response to Obama's speech. In Washington last month with a group of Florida farm workers, he met Rubio. "I mentioned my case to him," he said.

To get a prized seat in the visitors' gallery to watch the president's speech tonight, Godinez-Samperio needed more than the generosity of a member of Congress.

He also had to pass a basic security check, and to do that, he needed to provide his Social Security number, which he was happy to provide.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com.

Florida man at center of immigration debate a guest at Tuesday's State of the Union 02/11/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 3:11pm]
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