Supreme Court Calls on Florida Legislature to Legalize Right of Undocumented Immigrant “Dreamers” To Practice Law
FlaglerLive | March 7, 2014
The Florida Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Thursday that undocumented immigrants cannot be admitted to The Florida Bar, calling on the Legislature to change state law to allow so-called “Dreamers” to become attorneys.
Jose Godinez-Samperio, who came to the United States at age 9 from Mexico and later graduated from law school at Florida State University, passed the Bar exam more than two years ago. The Florida Board of Bar Examiners asked the court for an opinion about whether Godinez-Samperio and other undocumented immigrants are eligible to practice law in the state.
Godinez-Samperio’s lawyers argued that, because he had received a status known as “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” from the Obama administration and would not be deported, the Eagle Scout and high school valedictorian should be permitted to become a lawyer.
But despite his long list of accomplishments, the court ruled that Godinez-Samperio cannot be admitted to the bar unless the Florida Legislature changes state law, as California lawmakers did last year. Federal law prevents undocumented immigrants from receiving certain state public “benefits,” including professional licenses, unless states enact laws to allow certain classes of immigrants to receive those benefits, the court decided. California recently became the first state in the country to allow undocumented immigrants to receive law licenses based on a similar case.
The deferred status granted to students like Godinez-Samperio — called “Dreamers” because of federal legislation known as the “Dream Act” — is not the equivalent of permanent U.S. citizenship and “does not provide a path to permanent resident status or U.S. citizenship,” the court ruled.
“These policies do not provide this court with legal authority to disregard the laws currently enacted by Congress and admit unauthorized immigrants into Florida Bar membership,” the majority wrote in an 11-page opinion.
Godinez-Samperio, who works for Gulf Coast Legal Services in Tampa, said he was disappointed and angered by the decision but placed the blame on Congress.
“They have failed to take action on immigration reform. They have failed to take action on Dreamers. And actually I’m feeling outraged at the president as well,” Godinez-Samperio, 26, said in a telephone call with reporters Thursday afternoon.
U.S. Department of Justice lawyers wrote in a brief, filed at the request of the court, that “unlawfully present aliens” like Godinez-Samperio should not be admitted into the Bar.
In a separate lengthy opinion Thursday, Justice Jorge Labarga, who in July will become the state’s first Cuban-American chief justice, “reluctantly” agreed with the majority, writing that “in many respects, the applicant’s life in the United States parallels my own.”
Both were brought to the U.S. as children by their parents “by our hardworking immigrant parents,” learned English, excelled academically and graduated from law school. “Sadly, however, here the similarities end and the perceptions of our accomplishments begin,” Labarga wrote.
Labarga’s family members were welcomed to the country after leaving Cuba in 1963 and “were perceived as defectors from a tyrannical communist regime,” he wrote.
In contrast, Godinez-Samperio, “who is perceived to be a defector from poverty, is viewed negatively because his family sought an opportunity for economic prosperity,” Labarga wrote. “It is this distinction of perception, a distinction that I cannot justify regarding admission to The Florida Bar, that is at the root of Applicant’s situation.”
Labarga urged the Legislature to “remedy the inequities that the unfortunate decision of this court will bring to bear.”
But it is unlikely Florida’s GOP-dominated Legislature would pass such a measure, especially in an election year. Gov. Rick Scott, who is seeking re-election, rode a tea party wave into office four years ago, and his campaign platform then included support for an Arizona-style immigration law.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has made one of his top priorities getting in-state tuition for high school students who are in the country illegally. But Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is lukewarm on the issue. Staff for both Weatherford and Gaetz said they were reviewing Thursday’s decision.
Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, a former president of the American Bar Association who represents Godinez-Samperio, also called on the Legislature to act. He pointed out that many other types of Florida licenses do not require citizenship.
“If anybody cares about fairness, the idea of keeping Jose from achieving the credentials which he’s earned to me would be such an injustice they ought not to indulge in,” D’Alemberte, a former lawmaker, said. “Eagle Scout, valedictorian of his high school class, honors graduate from law school, passed the character and fitness exam. What’s missing?”
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida