The never ending debate over immigration reform has infiltrated the area of attorney bar admissions in the United States. In our sister state to the south, the Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously on March 7th that Tampa immigrant, Jose Godinez-Samperio, cannot practice law because he’s not a citizen. In its opinion, the Court inserted itself into another branch of government by strongly suggesting to the Florida Legislature to correct what it called an “injustice.”
“The Florida Legislature is in the unique position to act on this integral policy question and remedy the inequities that the unfortunate decision of this Court will bring to bear,” justices wrote. At least the Court did not create a new law or right out of thin air.
Godinez-Samperio’s effort to gain admission to the Florida Bar and become a Tampa Bay immigration lawyer was before the state’s highest court for more than two years and drew the interest, and opposition, of the White House.
Mr. Godinez-Samperio, who is currently legally residing in the United States, said “I’m feeling very disappointed. But more than anything, I’m feeling outraged at Congress, that they have failed to take action on immigration reform,” He went on to say, “And actually, I’m feeling outraged at the president as well. It’s time for Congress to act, it’s time for Obama to act and it’s time for the Legislature to act.”
Godinez-Samperio, 26, is in the United States legally, although temporarily. He’s known as a “dreamer” under the President’s 2012 policy directive known as DACA or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a status that has enabled him to get a Social Security number, work permit and Florida driver’s license. But he is still not a citizen.
He came to America from Mexico at age 9 with his parents, who overstayed tourist visas. He learned English, became an Eagle Scout, was valedictorian at Armwood High in Tampa and went to New College. He graduated with honors from Florida State University’s law school in 2011 before passing the bar exam and its moral character test.
But none of that was enough, the state Supreme Court said.
The reason is a 1996 federal law that denies specific “state public benefits” paid for by taxpayers, such as a license to practice law granted by a state court, to non-citizens unless a state declares an exception.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder cited that federal law in arguing that Godinez-Samperio should not be allowed to practice law in Florida.
In a case with similar circumstances, the California Legislature changed its laws to allow Sergio Garcia to practice law in that state. Florida could do the same.
Godinez-Samperio’s attorney says his client has not applied for U.S. citizenship because of a legal requirement that he leave the country for 10 years before applying.
Interestingly, Godinez-Samperio said he has no desire to practice law in a state that would accept him. (Such as California). For now, he said, he’ll continue working as a paralegal at Gulf Coast Legal Services.
This is a tough call. On one hand, I feel compassion for a young man who was illegally brought to the United States as a child. The parents committed the crime, not the child.
However, I also feel a sense of disgust when people so arrogantly insist on rights that are not guaranteed by the United States Constitution or any other federal or state law. There is currently a path for citizenship for Godinez-Samperio. He just doesn’t want to take the time to pursue it.
I am not too hopeful that Congress will ever find a solution to the immigration problem. That is because too many potential new voters are at stake. Instead, I foresee the individual states stepping up and addressing immigration issues in their respective states. The federal government and courts may object to this, but there will be action by the states.