Can an immigrant without a green card get a Florida Bar card?
Aspiring lawyer Jose Godinez-Samperio, 25, a Tampa-area resident, is hoping the answer is yes.
A native of Mexico who entered the United States legally with his parents 16 years ago on a tourist visa, Godinez-Samperio is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Law, the valedictorian of the Armwood High School class of 2004, an Eagle Scout — and an undocumented immigrant.
That last quality may keep him from achieving his dream.
The Florida Board of Bar Examiners, which grants membership to the Bar, has asked the state Supreme Court to determine whether it can accept someone who is not in the country legally. The Supreme Court flagged the case as "high profile" last week.
"No one who has shown this guy's level of contempt for American law should be practicing law," said William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, a political action committee that opposes amnesty for undocumented immigrants.
Tom Fitton, president of the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, agreed.
"He can't practice as a lawyer," Fitton said. "He is not legally able to work in the United States. … It seems to me that it would be an absurdity to give him a Bar card at this point."
Neither Fitton nor Gheen was aware of the Florida case before it was flagged as "high profile" last week. Similar applications are pending for students in California and New York.
But Godinez-Samperio, who once described himself as "undocumented, unapologetic and unafraid," has influential allies who believe his immigration status should not keep him from getting a license to practice law, even though federal statutes would forbid him using that license to earn a living.
His attorney and former law professor, Sandy D'Alemberte, is a former Democratic member of the Florida House of Representatives from Miami, a former president of FSU and a former president of the American Bar Association.
"It is unfair to deny him the credentials he's earned," said D'Alemberte, noting that there's nothing in the "Rules of the Supreme Court Relating to Admissions to the Florida Bar" that requires applicants to prove their immigration status.
In fact, D'Alemberte said, Godinez-Samperio has been candid about his status at every opportunity, disclosing it on college and law school applications (his application to law school included an essay titled "The Consequences of my Criminal Childhood," although being in the country illegally is a civil infraction, not a crime).
Immigration advocates have lobbied Congress to pass the Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented children who were brought to this country by their parents and raised in the United States. Congress has yet to pass such a law.
The Board of Bar Examiners began requiring exam-takers to submit proof of immigration status in 2008, but waived that policy for Godinez-Samperio, who disclosed his status and argued that documentation was not required as a rule for admission to the Bar.
There's no way of knowing whether any undocumented immigrant was accepted before 2008, and Godinez-Samperio is the first to apply for membership since.
The distinction between policies and rules goes to the heart of Godinez-Samperio's position, D'Alemberte said. "Rules have to be made by a Florida Supreme Court process," he said. "The Board of Bar Examiners is attempting to adopt a new rule without going through that process, after Jose has already complied with every current rule."
D'Alemberte acknowledged that his client, who stayed with his parents long after their tourist visa expired, is subject to detention and deportation. But he said it is not the Florida Bar's place to enforce federal immigration law. "We have agencies charged with enforcing those laws," he said.
Three other former American Bar Association presidents, two of whom once headed the Florida Bar, are siding with Godinez-Samperio. In a friend-of-the-court brief on his behalf, Tallahassee attorney Martha Barnett, Tampa attorney William Reece Smith Jr., and Miami attorney Stephen Zack (who escaped from Cuba and came to Florida with his family when he was 14), argued that denying Godinez-Samperio's admission would be "a waste of exceptional talent for our profession."
Agreeing with D'Alemberte, they suggested Godinez-Samperio can practice law in Florida if he takes on cases pro-bono.
Godinez-Samperio, who declined to be interviewed for this article, also has the support of his local congresswoman. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, wrote in a letter to the Supreme Court that taxpayers are already investing time and money by educating undocumented students during and after high school. "To deny these students the opportunity to become doctors or lawyers or practice another profession is to deny the state of Florida and all of our neighbors an educated and talented workforce," she wrote.