On the bitterly divisive issue of immigration reform, can we agree that children are different? Can we at least share the view that children brought to America illegally by their parents are not responsible for their predicament? All they did was grow up where the adults in their lives put them. For that reason — and I'm going to lose a few of you here — special rules should apply.
These DREAMers, as they are known after the various legislative attempts to help them gain citizenship, include a subgroup of young people who are even more deserving of an accommodation. Imagine going through years of expensive and rigorous schooling to qualify as a lawyer but being denied Bar admission because of your undocumented status. Welcome to the world of the DREAM Bar Association, a handful of young people who embody the American ideals of hard work and perseverance, and now just need the system to treat them fairly.
Jose Godinez-Samperio could be its poster child.
The 27-year-old Eagle Scout and former high school valedictorian was brought to the United States from Mexico by his parents when he was 9 years old. They stayed in the country after their visitor's visa expired.
Godinez-Samperio has done everything required to become the lawyer he aspires to be. He graduated Florida State University law school and passed the state Bar exam in July 2011.
Thanks to President Barack Obama's 2012 directive for undocumented immigrants 30 or younger who came into the country illegally as children, Godinez-Samperio gained lawful presence in the country, obtained temporary work authorization and a Social Security card.
Yet still, Godinez-Samperio has no license to practice law. Without it he is consigned to working as an overqualified paralegal at Gulf Coast Legal Services in Clearwater, being very careful not to provide clients with legal advice that could run afoul of rules against nonlawyers practicing law.
His future rests in the hands of the seven justices on the Florida Supreme Court. For more than a year Godinez-Samperio has awaited an advisory opinion by the high court on whether an undocumented alien is eligible for admission to the Bar. In that time President Obama has been re-elected and the DREAMers gained new legal status.
Then why the continued delay?
Maybe the holdup is that the Obama Justice Department tossed a wrench into the works by opposing Bar admission. The department's brief points to a federal law barring undocumented aliens from receiving "public benefits," including state Bar membership. States could carve out an exception for prospective lawyers, the department allowed, but Florida hasn't done that yet.
"If I want to be a construction worker it's okay, but if I want to be a lawyer it's a problem," Godinez-Samperio says, pointing out the absurdity of his position.
In California, Sergio Garcia has been facing the same barrier. He was brought from Mexico to the United States as a child and eventually graduated from law school in the state. But in October, sparked by Garcia's case, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill explicitly allowing illegal immigrants to practice law.
Florida may be able to reach the same result through the Florida Supreme Court, since rules conferring Bar admissions are under the court's jurisdiction.
But why is someone like Godinez-Samperio, who has a valid Social Security card and work authorization, considered "undocumented" in the first place?
Heck, to be a Florida Bar member you don't even have to be American. Foreign citizens are able to obtain admission, as long as they are not undocumented aliens. The students that taxpayers have invested in are stymied while foreign lawyers are welcomed. That doesn't make sense.
Godinez-Samperio is being represented by one of his former law professors, Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, also a former American Bar Association president, Florida State University president and FSU law school dean.
I have no doubt that D'Alemberte will win Godinez-Samperio admission in the long run. In the meantime, this young man's future is arrested and the state's return on its investment in him is deferred.