By Jan Pudlow
An amendment to an amendment piggybacked on an innocuous family law bill at session’s end. That’s what it took to give José Manuel Godinez-Samperio a giant step forward to finally become a Florida lawyer.
The amendment was crafted specifically to help this one 27-year-old man who came to the United States from Mexico with his parents at age 9 on a tourist visa, stayed with his parents when the visa expired, rose to the top of his high school class, graduated from Florida State University College of Law with honors, passed the bar exam in 2011, and has been entangled in a legal immigration quagmire ever since.
House Speaker Will Weatherford looked up at the gallery of spectators and said: “I would like to say to José, who has 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 many others as a lawyer in the good state of Florida. Congratulations, to you, sir.”
Moments earlier, CS/CS HB 755 had passed 79-37 on May 1.
Even legislators voting against the bill jumped to their feet on the House floor and gave a standing ovation.
A jubilant Godinez-Samperio waved from the gallery, standing next to his pro bono lawyer, Patsy Palmer, who grinned from ear to ear.
“I felt incredible,” said Godinez-Samperio, who works as a paralegal at Gulf Coast Legal Services, and hopes to continue working on immigration and housing issues there, once he is officially a member of The Florida Bar.
“Words cannot express how happy I feel.”
The following day, May 2, the Senate passed the House version by a 26-7 vote. Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law on May 12. Now pro bono attorney Sandy D’Alemberte said he will obtain the official stamp of approval on this unique situation from the Florida Board of Bar Examiners. D’Alemberte said he knows of only one other person facing the same obstacles as Godinez-Samperio to become a Florida lawyer.
“It has been a long journey,” said D’Alemberte, who taught Godinez-Samperio at FSU and argued his case of first impression before the Florida Supreme Court on October 2, 2012.
“He has been waiting since 2011,” D’Alemberte said. “At some point, he needs to get on with his life.”
His life so far as been exemplary. He became an Eagle Scout, and earned the distinction of valedictorian of Armwood High School in Seffner, east of Tampa. The National Honor Society scholar won scholarships to New College of Florida in Sarasota. Candid about his immigration status when he applied to law school, he graduated with honors.
The FBBE waived its 2008 policy to show proof of citizenship or immigration status and allowed Godinez-Samperio to sit for the bar exam — and he passed on the first try in 2011. The bar examiners also certified he passed the character and fitness investigation.
But his admission to the Bar was held up when the FBBE asked the Florida Supreme Court this advisory question: “Are undocumented immigrants eligible for admission to The Florida Bar?”
The justices, on March 6, answered “no,” saying they were bound by the supremacy of federal law prohibiting public benefits to an “unlawfully present alien,” and those benefits include “any . . . professional license, or commercial license” provided by “appropriated funds of a state.” The U.S. Department of Justice argued that federal statute prohibited the Florida Supreme Court from issuing a law license to an “unlawfully present alien.”
In a similar situation in California, the California Legislature passed a law to opt out of 8 U.S.C. §§1961 (a) and (c) (2012) to clear the only impediment to Sergio Garcia’s admission to the State Bar of California.
In the Florida case (SC11-2568) the justices wrote: “If the Florida Legislature were to take steps similar to those taken in California and affirmatively provide that such unauthorized immigrants are eligible for professional licenses, or, more narrowly, a license to practice law, applicant and other similarly situated qualified individuals would be eligible for admission to The Florida Bar pursuant to our current rules.”
Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, an attorney, read that sentence from the opinion aloud on the House floor, as he argued for passage of his amendment to the amendment. The new criteria for a noncitizen applicant to become a lawyer in Florida was that he or she “was brought to the United States as a minor; has been present in the United States for more than 10 years; has received documented employment authorization from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services; has been issued a Social Security number; if a male, has registered with the Selective Service System if required to do so under the Military Selective Service Act.”
In closing, Steube told lawmakers there were three compelling issues:
* Other professions regulated by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, according to Florida statute, do not require U.S. citizenship.
* Godinez-Samperio has legal authorization to live and work in the United States, because on December 24, 2012, he received notice that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had granted him “deferred action” under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. He has a Social Security card, a Florida driver’s license, and a work permit.
* He has registered for Selective Service.
“If there is a draft or a war tomorrow, he would be called up just like anybody else would be called up in defense of our country, to fight for our country’s freedom,” Steube said. “To me, as a military veteran, that is very compelling.”
Speaker Weatherford congratulated Steube for “finding a resolution to an issue that was thrown on your desk at the last minute.”
D’Alemberte said Weatherford’s support was “extremely important” in advocating Godinez-Samperio’s cause.
Democratic lawmakers, D’Alemberte said, understood it would not help to grandstand, and they showed “unusual discipline.” He credited Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, and his former law student Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Doral, in the House, and Sen. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, who introduced an amendment in the Senate.
Accompanied at times by Tallahassee attorney Steve Uhlfelder to make key legislative introductions, D’Alemberte, Palmer, and Godinez-Samperio walked the halls at the Capitol lobbying for support.
The question they were repeatedly asked was why doesn’t Godinez-Samperio just apply for U.S. citizenship?
“I would explain that I am not eligible,” Godinez-Samperio said. “You have to have a green card. A lot of people didn’t know that. It was nothing I could control, and nothing I could overcome.”
That question came up on the House floor during the final debate, too. Steube explained that Godinez-Samperio would have to return to Mexico, wait 10 years, have someone sponsor him, and then go to the bottom of the list and wait some more.
D’Alemberte said he was also repeatedly asked: Why shouldn’t this be before the Florida Supreme Court?
“I told them it was my opinion that it should have been before the Florida Supreme Court, but seven justices disagreed with me,” said D’Alemberte, who first filed a petition to amend the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar, Rule 1-3 Membership and Rule 1-3.1 Composition, gathering the names of nearly 100 lawyers, along with garnering an amicus brief filed by three former ABA presidents — Martha Barnett, Steve Zack, and the late Wm. Reece Smith, Jr.
“It’s been a great enriching experience for José,” D’Alemberte said. “Here’s a law graduate who has seen the court process and the legislative process in action. By far, the best advocate for José was José. The standing ovation he received, even from people who voted against the bill, is a real tribute to José and all that he has accomplished.”