A Florida House deeply divided on ideological grounds voted Thursday to open the door to allow some illegal immigrants who have lived in the country long enough to obtain law licenses from the Florida Bar.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, who has advocated for allowing undocumented students to obtain in-state tuition this year, called the 79-37 vote “an act of justice” after House Democrats and Republicans beat back an attempt by Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach, to strip the immigration language from the family law bill.
The measure is expected to clear the Senate where a different version passed 25-12 last week, after some impassioned debate over the merits of a Tampa-area aspiring lawyer and immigrant barred from admission into the Bar because he is not a citizen.
Just last month, the Florida Supreme Court reluctantly ruled that because Jose Godinez-Samperio, a Mexico native, was not a U.S. citizen, he could not legally be admitted into the Bar even though he passed its entry exam in 2011.
The state’s high court asked the Florida Legislature to remedy the “injustice.”
Godinez-Samperio and his lawyers, including former Florida State University President Sandy D’Alemberte, watched the House debate from the fifth-floor gallery and said afterward he was “ecstatic.”
“Today’s a great day for justice, for states’ rights. Today is a great day for fairness,” he said, adding he hoped to practice immigration law presuming Gov. Rick Scott signs the bill.
“Hopefully in the future, I’ll be able to help somebody else navigate the complex legal immigration system of this country.”
Before passing the bill, the House narrowed the definition of those who could utilize it to those who are brought to the country as minors, have lived in the United States for 10 years, are a legally documented worker, issued a Social Security card, and are registered for selective service.
Godinez-Samperio said he meets all those requirements, but is legally barred from applying for citizenship in the U.S.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but even if you don’t have immigration status in this country, you are required to register for the draft,” he said “I registered for the draft even before I had a Social Security number, even before I had work authorization because I am required to do so.”
Godinez-Samperio was 9 when he entered the United States legally with his parents on a tourist visa. They overstayed their visas, and Godinez-Samperio went on to become an Eagle Scout, graduate as valedictorian of Armwood High School in Tampa and earn a law degree with honors in 2011 from Florida State University.
The Florida Board of Bar Examiners, which grants membership to the Bar, asked the state Supreme Court to determine whether it could accept someone who is not in the country legally.
Sens. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat, and David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican, launched the effort last week by adding the language to a family law bill (HB 755) that would open the door for such admissions.
Their language would have applied only to “unauthorized immigrants” brought to the country as minors, who had been Florida residents for more than 10 years, and who had successfully fulfilled all requirements for admission to the Florida Bar.