TALLAHASSEE, FLA. (AP) – The Florida Senate on Thursday took the first step to help a Mexican national get his law license a month after the state Supreme Court said he couldn't because he's in the U.S. unlawfully.
After impassioned debate on both sides of the issue, the Senate amended a bill with language that would allow the Supreme Court to issue law licenses to people in the country unlawfully if they were brought to the country as a minor and if they've been in Florida for at least 10 years. Each case would be considered individually.
It's a response to the case of José Godinez-Samperio, whose parents brought him to the United States on a tourist visa when he was 9 and then remained in the country after it expired. He was an Eagle Scout and the valedictorian of his high school before graduating from Florida State University's law school. He passed the bar exam in 2011, but the Supreme Court said Florida law didn't allow him to get a law license.
The court suggested the Legislature could pass a law to allow immigrants here illegally to obtain law licenses, and noted that Godinez-Samperio is an exemplary candidate.
Senators debated for more than an hour over the issue before approving the language on a voice vote.
"Today was a great day for justice, for fairness, for states* rights," Godinez-Samperio told The Associated Press in an email late Thursday.
Some Republicans vehemently opposed the idea.
"Does being an American matter?" asked Aaron Bean, R-Jacksonville. "Congratulations on being an Eagle Scout, but you're not an American citizen."
Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland argued that if the bill (SB 755) becomes law, terrorists could take advantage of it and become lawyers in Florida. She also said it could give death row inmates a reason to appeal their sentences if they're defended by a lawyer who wasn't in the country legally.
But other Republicans said children shouldn't be punished for the actions of their parents, and they were joined by Democrats in supporting the language suggested by Democratic Sen. Darren Soto of Orlando and Republican Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs.
"We have the ability in our hands to right an injustice," Simmons said.
Godinez-Samperio received a work permit in 2012 as part of President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which halted the deportation of immigrants brought to the United States as children. He is working as a paralegal at Gulf Coast Legal Services, which provides free legal help to low-income people in the Tampa Bay area.
The Senate still has to vote on the bill as a whole and it would have to be passed by the House before going to Gov. Rick Scott, who last year vetoed a bill that would allow some young unauthorized immigrants to receive a temporary driver's license.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, who said he has met with Godinez-Samperio, said he was open to passing the legislation.
"There's some really compelling arguments to be made for that young man," Weatherford said.