TALLAHASSEE — In a historic vote with strong political overtones, the Florida House joined the Senate on Thursday in backing a Pinellas County immigrant's bid to practice law even though he's not a U.S. citizen.
A beaming Jose Godinez-Samperio, 27, of Largo offered a grateful thumbs-up from the House gallery as members gave him a resounding ovation following a 79-37 vote that Speaker Will Weatherford called "an act of justice." The Florida State University law school graduate has tried without success for 2½ years to gain admission to the Florida Bar and fulfill his dream of becoming an immigration lawyer.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously in March that it could not help Godinez-Samperio because federal law prevents giving taxpayer-funded public benefits to undocumented immigrants. Justices urged the Legislature to intervene and exempt Florida from that law, which led to Thursday's vote.
The House amended the bill, though, adding that for a noncitizen to get a Florida law license, he must register for the military draft, which Godinez-Samperio has done. The Senate is expected to agree today, the last day of the session, which would send the bill (HB 755) to Gov. Rick Scott, who said Thursday he will sign it.
"I couldn't believe how much support there was in the Legislature," said Godinez-Samperio, a paralegal at Gulf Coast Legal Services. "I feel great that we have been able to educate a lot of people who felt differently."
He has spent weeks meeting with individual lawmakers and his legal team has emphasized that Godinez-Samperio has met all of the Bar's admission requirements, including a background check for character and fitness. Another key argument they made is that for other state-regulated occupations, citizenship is not a requirement to obtain a professional license.
As a so-called "Dreamer," Godinez-Samperio is in the United States legally, but not permanently. He has work authorization, a Social Security card and a Florida driver's license.
Thursday's vote, combined with lawmakers' support for cheaper in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrant students, are two watershed policy changes affecting undocumented immigrants that would have been unthinkable a year ago in Tallahassee.
"This is truly transformative," said Patsy Palmer, one of Godinez-Samperio's lawyers.
It also reflects a dramatic election-year shift in the Republican Legislature at a time when Scott appears to face an uphill battle winning re-election in a state where Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority.
Born in Mexico, Godinez-Samperio came to the United States with his parents at age 9, and never left because they overstayed their tourist visas. He learned English, became an Eagle Scout, was valedictorian of his senior class at Armwood High in Seffner and an honors student at FSU's law school.
The opposition in the House was strongest among a group of conservative Republicans, some of whom described Godinez-Samperio as "illegal," a term senators avoided. But Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, a lawyer and Iraq war veteran, championed the legal scholar's cause and said that he was ready to defend his adopted country was "very compelling."
Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, criticized Godinez-Samperio's lobbying. "He knew the rules of the game before he started playing and we shouldn't change the rules at the end of the game," said Corcoran, who will become House speaker in 2016. "He won, and he shouldn't have."