Trailblazing migrant lawyer got his chance from Florida lawmakers. Now, GOP wants door closed
TALLAHASSEE – Born in Mexico and a licensed lawyer in Florida, Jose Godinez-Samperio could prove both to be the first and among the last of his kind.
Godinez-Samperio began his career as an immigration lawyer, helping people legally enter the U.S., only after the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2014 passed a law allowing undocumented residents to be admitted to the Florida Bar.
The measure was overwhelmingly supported by GOP lawmakers. Then-House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, called it an "act of justice," after the legislation was approved 79-37 by the House.
It was signed by then-Gov. Rick Scott, now a Republican U.S. senator.
But this year, GOP legislators supported by Gov. Ron DeSantis are advancing sweeping efforts to stifle illegal immigration, including repeal of the measure that set Godinez-Samperio on his career.
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“It’s a very sad thing,” said Godinez-Samperio, speaking from his office in Mexico City, where he works with clients seeking to relocate to the U.S. “I think there’s a faction within the Republican Party that sees this as the way the winds are blowing, and they want to be part of it.”
Godinez-Samperio said that for supporters, the repeal is mostly symbolic. “It’s not like people are going to flock to the United States to become undocumented lawyers,” he said.
But for the 36-year-old Godinez-Samperio, the 2014 law meant everything.
A long journey to law
Coming to Florida as a 9-year-old with his parents and sister on tourist visas, the family remained in the state undocumented.
Godinez-Samperio went to school in the Tampa area, eventually becoming his high school’s valedictorian and receiving his undergraduate degree from New College of Florida. He went on to Florida State University’s College of Law, where he graduated with honors.
But after passing the Florida Bar exam in 2011, he ran into a brick wall.
Federal law prohibits the issuance of professional license to undocumented immigrants, but does allow states to pass laws making them eligible.
And that's what happened for Godinez-Samperio in 2014, after his cause was taken up by key backers, including late, former FSU President Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, and Florida Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga.
The law graduate’s situation had already been reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court, where justices ruled Godinez-Samperio was not eligible for his law license because of the federal prohibition.
Justice Jorge Labarga, a key backer
But Labarga, born in Cuba and who grew up as a refugee in rural Pahokee in Palm Beach County, was moved by the case.
“Justice Labarga compared his story to mine,” Godinez-Samperio said. “He said it wasn’t fair that he was able to be admitted with full legal status as a Cuban refugee and I could not because I was born in Mexico.”
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The legislation, approved and signed by Scott, allows law licenses for undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children, have lived in the U.S. for at least 10 years, and are authorized to work and have a Social Security number.
It echoed themes of the "Dreamers" program introduced by President Obama that was designed to protect undocumented children brought to the U.S. by their parents. But that program has since become a target for anti-immigrant organizations and former President Trump, who tried unsuccessfully to disband it in 2017.
Labarga declined comment on the possible repeal of the lawyers' provision, because the proposed legislation could eventually come before justices in a legal challenge.
A Scott spokesman, McKinley Lewis, said he opposes the repeal and "stands by the legislation he signed into law. These kids are here through no fault of their own and deserve the same chance to live the American dream."
Scott has singled out another sanction against immigrants DeSantis is calling for this year. The governor, an expected Republican presidential contender, wants reversed another law Scott signed in 2014 that allows undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition.
DeSantis, Republicans want to blunt illegal immigration
DeSantis and Republican lawmakers have clamored for steps that they say will “disincentivize” illegal immigration.
Eliminating the chances for undocumented people to attain a law license is just one of the provisions included in legislation (CS/SB 1718, HB 1617) that enhances penalties for human smuggling and imposes new requirements on employers, local governments and hospitals dealing with migrants.
An in-state tuition ban so far is not included in the legislation.
The Senate sponsor of the measure, Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, blames the federal government for the nation’s immigration woes. “The only way we’re going to fix it is if we start pushing back,” he said.
The legislation barring anyone like Godinez-Samperio from becoming a Florida lawyer won’t directly affect him, since it allows those currently admitted to the Florida Bar to continue practicing.
But it does close the door in Florida.
Michele Gavagni, executive director of the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, said she thinks as many as 20 undocumented residents may have qualified for admittance as lawyers over the past nine years.
Godinez-Samperio worked in Florida as a paralegal at Gulfcoast Legal Services, a nonprofit aid organization in Pinellas County, while he was awaiting admission to the Florida Bar and then shortly afterward.
But he and his family are now all back in Mexico. He is also licensed in that country and has been practicing law there for more than six years.
“I know people who are undocumented priests, teachers and accountants. It’s a great feeling to get people legally to the United States,” Godinez-Samperio said. “People can start over and they contribute so much, their experience and more than anything, it’s their attitude.
“It’s what helps them start new businesses, they create jobs in Florida, and they make the pie bigger. For everyone,” he added.
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Migrant lawyer made Florida history. Republicans are closing the door