Non-Citizen Law License Debate Turns Personal; Bill Heads Back To House

Apr 25, 2014

Sen. Garcia says his brother was an undocumented immigrant when he fought for the U.S. in Iraq.
Credit Florida Senate / FLSenate.gov

Non-citizens brought to Florida illegally as children could get the chance to practice law under a measure the Senate passed today. A recent Florida Supreme Court opinion urged the Legislature to allow leeway for undocumented immigrants applying to the Florida Bar.

Much of the Senate debate centered on one man: 27-year-old Jose Godinez-Samperio. He’s an undocumented immigrant whose parents brought him from Mexico when he was a child. Since then, he graduated from the Florida State University College of Law and passed the Florida Bar exam and character background check. But in March, the state Supreme Court ruled he couldn’t legally have a law license.

After the ruling, Godinez-Samperio said he wants to better serve his low-income clients at Gulfcoast Legal Services in Clearwater.

“I’m not able to give them legal advice because I’m not an attorney,” he says, “but if I were, I’d be able to help them, help them navigate the legal system.”

Future Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice and Cuban-American immigrant Jorge Labarga wrote a separate opinion in the case, urging the Legislature to act. This week, with days left in the lawmaking session, Sen. Darren Soto (D-Orlando) and Sen. David Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs) amended a broadly supported family law bill to make the change Larbarga had hinted at.

The bill now heading back to the House would allow the Supreme Court discretion in giving law licenses to non-citizens who’d lived in Florida for more than 10 years. As he introduced his amendment, Simmons seemed to anticipate push-back.

“It’s going to be a difficult debate because there’s going to be good points on both sides,” he said. “But on this one I believe that you cannot, you cannot penalize this young man for the perceived sins of the parents.”

“Sins of the parents” was a common theme among supportive debaters. But Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) said he’d like to see a requirement added for undocumented Bar applicants to also apply for U.S. citizenship.

“It keeps occurring to me that at some point the boy become a man and becomes responsible—or the daughter becomes a woman—and they become responsible for their actions,” Bradley said.

But Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) replied that he’d looked into immigration law, and in many cases the first step toward citizenship would be to require the person to return to their country of origin and wait up to a decade. Godinez-Samperio lives in Latvala’s district.

The debate then turned personal, with several Latin-American senators sharing their families’ stories. For one, Sen. Rene Garcia (R-Hialeah) said his brother Carlos was brought illegally to Florida at age 3 and went on to join the military and fight for the U.S. in Iraq.

“How dare we say it’s OK for them to die for this country but yet it’s not OK for them to have a professional license in this state?” Garcia said.

But Sen. Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland) said the law doesn’t just apply to upstanding young people. She says people with bad intentions might plan for years to get a law license and use it against Americans.

“We have terrorists from other countries who could come over here in a negative way and try to become legal officers of the court of this country as an attorney,” she said.

The bill passed the Senate Friday on a vote of 25 to 12 and heads back to the House. Speaker Will Weatherford hinted to reporters he supports the bill as amended.

“I think there’s a compelling argument to be made for that young man,” he says. “I have had a chance to meet with him.”

And Weatherford says the Senate vote bodes well for one of his priority bills, up soon: That one grants undocumented students in-state college tuition rates.