TALLAHASSEE — A young Mexican immigrant's dream of a Florida legal career moved closer to reality Friday as the Senate passed a bill that would allow a noncitizen to obtain a law license from the state Supreme Court for the first time.
Jose Godinez-Samperio, 27, of Largo, has spent more than two years pursuing a dream of becoming an immigration lawyer. Stymied by the legal bureaucracy and rebuffed by the state's highest court, he's pursuing the only option he has left: the Legislature.
The Senate's bipartisan 25-12 vote Friday was prompted by a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in March, when justices said they were powerless to help Godinez-Samperio unless directed by the Legislature because of a federal law that bars undocumented immigrants from receiving certain state benefits, such as licenses, that are provided with tax money, unless a state opts out of the law.
Justices called on lawmakers to address "the injustice of this decision" and calling the young Eagle Scout, former valedictorian and honors law student "the type of exemplary individual the Florida Bar should strive to add to its membership."
Godinez-Samperio is not a U.S. citizen.
He came to Florida at age 9 with his parents, who let their tourist visas expire, and currently has temporary status through a 2012 presidential directive that temporarily protects children of undocumented immigrants from being deported. His lawyer, Talbot (Sandy) D'Alemberte, said Godinez-Samperio has not applied for U.S. citizenship because by law, he would have to return to Mexico after living for most of his life in Florida.
With a week to go in the 2014 legislative session, the House must follow the Senate's lead, Gov. Rick Scott must sign the bill and the court must give Godinez-Samperio his license to practice law before he can open a law practice.
The bill (HB 755) was amended to apply to as few noncitizens as possible by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. The language limits the scope of the noncitizen provision to an "unauthorized immigrant" who came to Florida as a minor, has lived here for at least 10 years and has met Bar admission requirements.
All 14 Democrats in the Senate were joined by 11 Republicans in passing the bill. Twelve Republicans voted no and three Republicans did not vote, including Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who was out of the chamber at the time.
Every South Florida senator voted for the bill, and the only no votes from Tampa Bay were cast by Republican Sens. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and John Legg of Trinity.
The approval of such a controversial issue increases the likelihood that senators will also pass a bill granting a steep discount in college tuition to undocumented immigrants at the same level as other Florida students.