A California Supreme Court ruling last week finally gave Sergio Garcia the law license he had already earned. Garcia is undocumented, having come to the country illegally with his parents. He paid his way through college and law school, and he passed the California Bar. Still, it took a determination by the state's highest court to let him practice law. Now the Florida Supreme Court should follow suit to resolve a similar situation. Jose Godinez-Samperio has waited more than a year for the court to issue an advisory opinion on whether an undocumented alien is eligible for admission to the state Bar. The way is clear for the justices to rule in favor of fairness.
The sticking point for states granting undocumented aliens law licenses is a federal law that says they are prevented from receiving "public benefits," including state Bar membership. However, individual states are free to carve out an exception for prospective lawyers. Motivated by Garcia's conundrum, California passed state legislation in October that explicitly grants undocumented aliens eligibility for a law license. In its ruling, the California Supreme Court relied heavily on the new law, saying it "removes any potential statutory obstacle to Garcia's admission."
There is no similar Florida law. But that isn't necessarily an impenetrable barrier for the 27-year-old Godinez-Samperio, who was brought from Mexico at age 9 by his parents, who overstayed their visitor's visa. Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, a former American Bar Association president, Florida State University president and FSU law school dean, represents Godinez-Samperio. He argues that in Florida it is the Florida Supreme Court, not the state Legislature, that determines the rules conferring Bar admission. The high court could simply clarify that an applicant's undocumented status is not a barrier.
This is a matter of fundamental fairness, particularly for those who were brought to the United States as children. Godinez-Samperio has done everything necessary to fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer in his adopted country. He graduated Florida State University law school and passed the state Bar exam in July 2011. He was a model student, an Eagle Scout and a high school valedictorian.
It is not even accurate to call him undocumented. Under President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, immigrants under 31 who were brought to the United States by their parents may live here and work legally. Godinez-Samperio now has a valid Social Security card and work authorization.
Today, Godinez-Samperio works as a paralegal at Gulf Coast Legal Services in Clearwater awaiting a decision that would allow him to enter the profession he trained for. Foreign citizens may obtain admission to the Florida Bar, but so far undocumented aliens whose schooling Florida taxpayers have invested in cannot. The Florida Supreme Court should correct this injustice and reward the hard work of Godinez-Samperio and others like him.