TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Immigrants in the country illegally can't be given a license to practice law, a question that was raised when a man who moved here from Mexico when he was 9 years old sought a license in Florida, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The court said federal law prohibits people who are unlawfully in the country from obtaining professional licenses. The justices said state law can override the federal ban, but Florida has taken no action to do so.
"Simply stated, current federal law prohibits this court from issuing a license to practice law to an unlawful or unauthorized immigrant," the court wrote.
The case involves Jose Godinez-Samperio, whose parents brought him to the United States on tourist visas and then never returned to Mexico. He graduated from New College in Florida, earned a law degree fromFlorida State University and passed the state bar in 2011.
Godinez-Samperio was represented by his former law professor, Sandy D'Alemberte, who is a former American Bar Association president.
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.
"I'm feeling very disappointed, but more than anything I'm feeling outraged at Congress, that they have failed to take action on immigration reform, they have failed to take action on dreamers issues and actually I'm feeling outraged at the president as well," Godinez-Samperio said, noting that the U.S. Justice Department filed a brief in the case stating that the license shouldn't be granted.
"If I were able to practice law I would be able to help so many immigrants navigate the legal system," he said.
Justice Jorge Labarga expressed disappointment in the decision even though he reluctantly agreed with it. He called the situation an injustice and mentioned Godinez-Samperio's was an Eagle Scout and the valedictorian of his high school. He said he and his family were welcomed with open arms when they arrived from Cuba because they were perceived as fleeing a tyrannical communist government, but Godinez-Samperio is perceived as a defector from poverty and is thus "viewed negatively."
Labarga said Godinez-Samperio was "the type of exemplary individual The Florida Bar should strive to add to its membership."
The Board of Bar Examiners in Florida found no reason to deny Godinez-Samperio a license but asked the state's high court for guidance because of his immigration status.
Similar cases have played out in other states. Earlier this year, the California Supreme Court granted a law license to Sergio Garcia, who arrived in the U.S. from Mexico as a teenager to pick almonds with his father. But that ruling was only after the state approved a law that allows immigrants in the country illegally to obtain the license.
Labarga said Godinez-Saperios "is so near to realizing his goals yet so agonizingly far because, regrettably, unlike the California Legislature, the Florida Legislature has not exercised its considerable authority on this important question."
D'Alemberte said he has already been in touch with House and Senate leadership about changing the law during the 60-day legislative session that began Tuesday.