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Legislature Poised To Open Courthouse Doors For Undocumented Lawyer

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/News Service of Florida) - In another sign that the conservative House is warming to the plight of immigrants, the chamber gave overwhelming support Thursday to a proposal that would enable a Mexican-born Eagle Scout to practice law in Florida.

Jose Godinez-Samperio was brought to the country at age 9 by his parents and remained with them after their visas expired, which meant the family was here illegally. Godinez-Samperio became an Eagle Scout, was valedictorian of his high school class, graduated from New College and attended law school at Florida State University before passing The Florida Bar exam.

But Godinez-Samperio could not become a lawyer because he is not a U.S. citizen, the Florida Supreme Court decided in an opinion penned by Justice Jorge Labarga last month. Writing for the majority, Labarga asked the Legislature to allow the court to change its rules to allow Godinez-Samperio, and others like him who were brought to the country as children, to become eligible to practice law in Florida.

Last week, the Senate opened the door for Godinez-Samperio with an amendment attached to a family law-related measure. The Senate plan would give the Supreme Court the ability to admit into The Bar individuals who were brought to the state as minors and have been residents of the state for more than 10 years.

Rep. Greg Steube, the House sponsor of the bill (HB 755), originally objected to the proposal. But on Thursday, Steube, a lawyer, successfully added more limits to the bill, which would now only apply to individuals who were brought to the country as children, have been residents of the U.S. for more than a decade, have received documented employment authorization from federal immigration officials, have been issued Social Security cards and, if they are men, have registered with the Selective Service System.

Godinez-Samperio meets all of the criteria included in the bill, which was passed by the House in a 79-37 vote as Godinez-Samperio looked on from the public gallery. The bill will have to go back to the Senate because of changes made by the House. The legislative session ends Friday.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, who has made giving in-state tuition rates for undocumented students a top priority this session, congratulated Godinez-Samperio after the House vote.

"I would like to say to Jose, who's been given an opportunity by this Legislature, maybe an act of justice by this Legislature, to take that act of justice and return that act of justice" to others in Florida, Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel said.

Godinez-Samperio, who works as a paralegal in Tampa, said he hopes to practice immigration law if he is allowed to become an attorney. He told reporters he "felt ecstatic" after the vote in which nearly two-thirds of the Legislature showed support.

But some Republican House members objected to allowing non-U.S. citizens to practice law.

Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, said he takes his obligations as an attorney "very, very seriously."

"For me, this particular issue is non-negotiable," Wood said.

But Steube, a lawyer who voted against the in-state tuition bill, said he decided to help Godinez-Samperio because of the law.

Florida law specifically does not bar non-citizens from other regulated professions, such as doctors or accountants, Steube said. State law gives the Supreme Court control over the legal profession, and the court asked the Legislature to change the law that excluded Godinez-Samperio from being admitted to The Bar, Steube said.

"So if they're the ones that by statute we've given the authority to make that decision, and they're telling us they would admit this individual and asking us to do it, to me that's what pushed me over. … And my amendment made me feel much more comfortable," Steube said Thursday afternoon. "He's a legally authorized worker. He is documented to legally work in our country. He has a Social Security card. He pays taxes and he's registered with the Selective Service. To me, it was all compelling."

Federal law allows states to enact laws that make undocumented immigrants eligible for "state and local benefits," such as membership in The Bar. Like some other "Dreamers," Godinez-Samperio was able to get work authorization after President Obama issued an executive order granting "deferred action" status to children who were brought to the country, which means that he will not be deported.

Godinez-Samperio's lawyer Sandy D'Alemberte --- a former American Bar Association president, former head of the Florida State University School of Law and a former lawmaker --- and D'Alemberte's wife Patsy Palmer, along with attorney Steve Uhlfelder, walked the halls for weeks helping their client share his story.

D'Alemberte said he believes lawmakers are softening to the plight of immigrants who lack authorization to be in the country, especially if they are children.

"That was a pretty green board up there just now," D'Alemberte said, referring to the "yes" votes in the House. "Of course it's wonderful to have somebody as intelligent and as tenacious as Jose to carry this issue. But I think people are beginning to respond now to Hispanics in ways they didn't used to."

Godinez-Samperio, whose parents now live in Mexico, said he is unable to apply for citizenship because he is not qualified. He said "it felt great" to educate lawmakers and help them change their views, attitudes he has encountered throughout his life as an undocumented immigrant.

"A lot of people have the same reaction. Why don't you apply for citizenship? Why don't you do this? Why don't you do that? And once they realize how messed up our federal immigration laws are, they change their minds," he said. "So it's a great feeling to see that there are so many wise people who recognize that actually they were mistaken about their views of immigration and that they have repaired them."

This report is by Dara Kam with The News Service of Florida.

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