It is now up to the Florida Legislature to correct a serious injustice and allow Jose Godinez-Samperio the license to practice law that he has earned. The Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that its hands are tied by federal law and that it cannot clear the way for undocumented immigrants to receive law licenses. The court said only state legislators can do that, so they should promptly address this fundamental unfairness.
Godinez-Samperio is a shining example of the opportunities in Florida for young people who work hard and contribute to our communities. He came here from Mexico with his parents when he was 9 years old, and his parents overstayed their visitors' visas to escape the poverty in their home country. He is an Eagle Scout who graduated as the valedictorian at Armwood High School in Seffner. He obtained an undergraduate degree from New College and a law degree from Florida State University. He has passed the Florida Bar exam and cleared his character and fitness review. He has a Social Security number, and he has a permit to work legally as a paralegal at Gulf Coast Legal Services in Clearwater.
Yet Godinez-Samperio cannot get his Florida Bar license to practice law because of federal law dealing with undocumented immigrants, the Supreme Court ruled. It said federal statutes clearly bar undocumented immigrants from obtaining "public benefits" such as professional licenses and that only the state Legislature can make an exception. Never mind that Godinez-Samperio is working legally now. Never mind that Florida taxpayers already have made a good investment by contributing significantly to his public education. Never mind that he falls within President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which enables younger undocumented immigrants brought to the United States by their parents to be here legally for a two-year period that can be renewed.
Godinez-Samperio has played by the rules, and he has not lied about his status or his background. He has excelled at every level, and he has contributed to the Tampa Bay community. He can live here legally. He can work here legally. He can take the Florida Bar exam and pass it. He just can't work as a lawyer.
Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, a former American Bar Association president, state legislator and Florida State University president, represented Godinez-Samperio and argued that the state Supreme Court could advise the Florida Bar to approve the law license. Now the court has concluded it's the Legislature's responsibility to create that path, although Justice Jorge Labarga wrote in a concurring opinion that Godinez-Samperio "is the type of exemplary individual the Florida Bar should strive to add to its membership." Labarga, who was brought here from Cuba as a child by his parents, even noted their similar life trajectories and that "both of us were driven by the opportunities this great nation offered to realize the American dream.'' Yet they are treated differently because of timing and circumstance.
Faced with an identical situation, California state lawmakers passed legislation last year that explicitly grants undocumented immigrants eligibility for a law license. The California Supreme Court relied on that new state law to give Sergio Garcia a law license. Now the Florida Legislature should pass similar legislation to let Godinez-Samperio and others in his predicament obtain law licenses in this state. Florida's strength is its rich mix of residents who left their birthplaces to work hard and seek better lives here. It would be a stain on this state to deny Godinez-Samperio an opportunity to realize his dream.