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Senate backs non-citizen's petition to practice law

A closely-divided Florida Senate Thursday championed the unprecedented case of Jose Godinez-Samperio of Largo, a law school graduate who has been denied a law license because he's not a citizen. Hours after senators rejected the idea on a 19-18 vote, they clearly approved it on a voice vote, but a final vote was delayed.

Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, changed his vote from no to yes and said in an interview he was distracted and voted the wrong way by mistake. "I think the kid deserves it. I think he's worked hard," Thrasher said. "I don't think we ought to punish kids who were brought here by their parents."

That's the same argument proponents are using to give discounted in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrant students living in Florida. But opponents said helping Godinez-Samperio was a serious mistake.

Likening Godinez-Samperio to a "lawbreaker," Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, asked: "Does being an American matter any more? ... We are making an illegal citizen an officer of the court."

"If they're here illegally, they need to get in line and do it the right way," said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla.

All 14 Democrats and seven Republicans debated in favor of Godinez-Samperio or voted yes the first time, enough to pass the bill in the 40-member Senate.

The Senate will send the bill (HB 755) back to the House, where Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has said he would like to find a way to help the would-be lawyer, a graduate of Florida State University law school.

Gov. Rick Scott issued a statement that said "this case demonstrates how broken our federal immigration laws are," but he did not say whether he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.   

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in March that it cannot admit Godinez-Samperio unless directed by the Legislature, and it called on lawmakers to "remedy the inequities" in the case. Godinez-Samperio's effort to gain Bar admission and become a Tampa Bay immigration lawyer was before the state's high court for more than two years and drew the interest -- and opposition -- of the Obama White House. His volunteer attorney is one of Florida's most prominent lawyers, Talbot (Sandy) D'Alemberte, a former FSU president and American Bar Association president who served as a Democratic legislator in the 1960s, along with his wife and co-counsel, Patsy Palmer.

D'Alemberte has noted that Florida routinely licenses doctors and many other professionals who are not U.S. citizens. He has questioned why lawyers are treated differently, and said he expected to receive strong support in the House.

Godinez-Samperio, 27, is in the U.S. legally but temporarily as a "dreamer" under the 2012 presidential directive known as DACA or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which enabled him to get a Social Security number, work permit and Florida driver's license.

The Senate amendment was sponsored by Sens. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, and David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. It reads: "Upon certification by the Florida Board of Bar Examiners that an applicant who is an unauthorized immigrant who was brought to this state as a minor and who has been a resident of this state for more than 10 years and has fulfilled all requirements for admission to practice law in this state, the Supreme Court of Florida may admit that applicant as an attorney at law authorized to practice in this state and may direct an order be entered upon the court's records to that effect." The phrase "unauthorized immigrant" was lifted from the Supreme Court's opinion.