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Democrats: Undocumented Immigrants Should Be Allowed To Practice Law

Michael Fleshman via Flickr

Hispanic Democratic Florida lawmakers are rallying to change state professional-licensing requirements after the Florida Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday undocumented immigrants cannot be admitted to the Florida Bar as lawyers. At the same time, undocumented students called on President Barack Obama to push federal immigration reform as he visited Miami today.

Jose Godinez-Samperio says Thursday started like most of the Thursdays he works as a paralegal at Gulf Coast Legal Services in Clearwater. Around 11, it was his usual routine: He checked the Florida Supreme Court website for new opinion releases.

“Mostly I was surprised that they had even made a ruling cause it had been so long I didn’t actually expect to see anything on the court website. And when I did see something, I was thinking, ‘OK, well this is it. This is it,’ and then I read through the opinion, and as I was reading through the opinion, I got my answer in the first few pages. It turned out I wasn’t going to be able to practice law.”

Concluding an almost three-year case, Supreme Court justices ruled Godinez-Samperio was not eligible for a license because he’s an undocumented immigrant. His parents brought him to the U.S. when he was a child. He passed the bar exam and character background check after graduating from Florida State University law school. Under a 2012 executive order, President Obama allowed Godinez-Samperio and hundreds of thousands of others who came to the country as children the chance to apply for deferred action status, allowing them to work, have a driver’s license and receive a Social Security card.

Godinez-Samperio remembers, “I got to meet him about a year and a half ago at the State of the Union address, and he said to me after the State of the Union, he said to me, ‘You know, you’re the reason that we’re doing this.’”

That was then. Now Godinez-Samperio says he’s angry at the president because the Justice Department filed a brief in his Supreme Court case in opposition to his bar admission.  

“Yeah, he’s such a hypocrite. I think he would be OK with me doing construction work, but it’s a problem for him if I want to be a lawyer,” he says.

He notes the coincidence that Obama happened to be at a Miami high school Friday to talk about education.

In the speech’s VIP-seating section, another undocumented college student with deferred status, Jorge Tume, was awaiting the president’s arrival with fellow members of the group Students Working for Equal Rights.

Tume said, “I just want to hear what he says. Hopefully, he includes the undocumented, not just the documented cause at the end of the day, he knows that we’re here.”

Tume says the Supreme Court’s decision denying a law license to Godinez-Samperio is “heartbreaking.”

He says, “I’d be confused, like, what’s the point then of becoming educated if your education doesn’t—you don’t have even the right to become what you want to?”

That question was echoed in a separate opinion issued in the case by future Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, the court’s only Cuban-American justice. He writes that federal and state law forced him to make what he called an “unfortunate” and “inequitable” decision. He also writes a recent California law allows undocumented immigrants to have law licenses and “regrettably, unlike the California Legislature, the Florida Legislature has not exercised its considerable authority on this important question.”

After reading the decision, at least two Hispanic Democratic lawmakers would like that to change.

“We’ve all been looking at this through the evening and all through the morning to say, ‘OK, what now?’” says Rep. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa). “The fact that their parents overstayed their visas is no fault of theirs, and I think it would be a tragedy and a very sad day for the residents of this state if we ignored the needs of these young men and women.”

She and Sen. Darren Soto (D-Orlando) wrote to Legislative leaders demanding the issue be addressed this session. Soto says he was moved by the part of Labarga’s written opinion where the justice says his own life closely parallels Godinez-Samperio’s—except for one unfortunate difference.

Soto says, “The only difference is that he was granted citizenship as a political refugee from Cuba, and this gentleman was not. And one is about to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Florida and the other is being denied even the ability to practice law.”

He says, with a bill granting in-state college tuition to deferred-action immigrants moving already, he’s hopeful the Republican–controlled Legislature will be as open to those same students having a chance to earn professional licenses.

A representative from House Speaker Will Weatherford's office says the speaker has not yet seen the letter from Cruz and he's reviewing the Supreme Court decision.