Immigrant lawyer is a sure case of an American dream

Published March 9, 2012

One night in 1984, a 17-year-old boy drove his gold Trans Am the wrong way across the Howard Frankland Bridge and hit another car. A 20-year-old woman named Susan Crawford died. Police said the teenager was drinking.

James "Kal" Gibron, son of a former assistant coach for the Bucs, was looking at up to 15 years in prison. Priests and former judges spoke up for him at a sentencing hearing. The young woman's mother did not ask for prison. He got 10 years of probation, and, fair to say, the chance of a lifetime.

He took it. He went to law school. After he passed the bar exam, officials who look at would-be lawyers on issues like "proof of character and fitness" found him eligible to be an attorney here in the state of Florida. Those officials don't talk about specific cases, but you can assume theirs was a considered decision that took into account the circumstances and the man himself.

The question: Will José Godínez-Samperio, an Eagle Scout, high school valedictorian and Florida State University law student who passed the bar exam on his first try, get the same consideration?

He doesn't have a tragic mistake he made standing in his way. What's between the 25-year-old and his goal reminds me of those cheesy late-night lawyer ads that ask, "Have you been injured through no fault of your own?" How Godínez-Samperio got here was through no fault of his own.

As the Times' Jodie Tillman reported this week, Godínez-Samperio's parents brought him to this country from Mexico when he was 9. Here on tourist visas, they settled illegally in rural Hillsborough County, got jobs and stayed. Their son did well in school, pushed on to college and, last year, passed the bar exam.

But the Florida Board of Bar Examiners requires immigration status or proof of citizenship, something, given his circumstances, Godínez-Samperio could not provide. Now the board is asking the Florida Supreme Court to decide if undocumented immigrants like him are eligible for admission to the Bar — a question with implications as large as immigration policy and as personal as the next step a man will be allowed to take.

Representing Godínez-Samperio is his former law professor, who has also been both president of FSU and the American Bar Association, and so a guy with some knowledge here. Among other things, Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte will point out how Florida has helped others, like those who attended Cuban law schools, to become lawyers here. But the argument can't get any simpler than what D'Alemberte said this week: "Why are you going to keep a kid like that out of the Bar?" Good question.

Even in the political furor over immigration policy, borders and jobs, there is talk of the basic humanity in not punishing children of illegal immigrants. It's that "through no fault of your own" thing, and a matter of fairness.

You hope yours is the kind of country where far-reaching, important decisions with the power to change people's lives will be made with a sense of fairness, common sense and a little heart, taking into account the unique circumstances that make a man (or woman). You also hope rules will be equally applied.

The question is whether this will extend to Godínez-Samperio, who came here with his parents, worked hard and did well, and wants to do more, a dream about as American as it gets.