Immigration policy gives boost to aspiring lawyer

By Rafael Olmeda, Sun Sentinel
3:30 p.m. EDT, August 20, 2012

An aspiring lawyer who is in the country illegally applied for a work permit last week under President Obama's "deferred action" policy, but he must still wait to learn whether the Florida Supreme Court will give him his bar card.

Jose Godinez-Samperio, 25, was born in Mexico and came to the United States legally with his parents when he was 9. His family's tourist visas expired, but they never left the country.

Instead, Godinez-Samperio became a model student, an Eagle Scout and the valedictorian of his high school class in Tampa. He went on to study law at Florida State University and passed the bar exam last year.

But his aspirations collided with political reality when the Florida Bar declined to grant him a license to practice law.

Instead, the Board of Bar Examiners punted to the state's high court, asking the justices to decide whether someone who is in the country illegally can enter the profession legally.

Godinez-Samperio's case is a textbook example of those who would have fallen under the protection of a DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for children of parents who either entered the country illegally or stayed after their documents expired. Congress has not passed the act, but Obama's deferred action policy frees such immigrants from the threat of deportation, at least for now.

"He falls squarely under this rule," said Godinez-Samperio's lawyer, Sandy D'Alemberte, a former member of the Florida House of Representatives, former president of FSU and former president of the American Bar Association. "Jose has complied with every valid rule for admission to the Florida Bar. There is no rule in place that blocks his admission right now."

Had such a rule been in place, the Florida Bar would have no need to ask the Supreme Court to settle the question.

The bar only began asking exam-takers to provide proof of legal residency in 2008, but when Godinez-Samperio argued last year that documentation was not a formal requirement, he was allowed to take the exam.

Godinez-Samperio's quest drew criticism from anti-illegal immigration advocates who were outraged that someone who openly flouts American law would seek to become a lawyer. William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, and Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, noted in April that if Godinez-Samperio were allowed to become a lawyer, it would still be illegal for him to earn a living in the United States.

At the time, D'Alemberte countered that his client would be able to work pro bono. But the deferred action program would now give Godinez-Samperio the right to set up shop and make a living practicing law in Florida.

That could change at any time if Obama loses re-election and Mitt Romney, who opposes the policy, decides to reverse it, D'Alemberte said. If that were to happen, he said, Godinez-Samperio would be able to use his Florida credentials to practice in another country.

The Florida Supreme Court has not indicated when it will issue a ruling.

While the Obama administration has not weighed in on Godinez-S
amperio's effort to obtain a law license, the Justice Department is opposing the effort of Sergio Garcia to obtain a bar card in California despite being in the country illegally. Another aspiring lawyer, Cesar Vargas, has passed the bar exam in New York and faces a similar challenge because of his illegal immigration status.

Three other former American Bar Association presidents, two of whom once headed the Florida Bar, also side with Godinez-Samperio.

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 in briefs filed earlier this year that denying Godinez-Samperio's admission would be "a waste of exceptional talent for our profession."

Godinez-Samperio also enjoys 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., 954-356-4457 or Twitter @SSCourts

Aspiring lawyer, in US illegally, gets boost from new immigration policy - South Florida