Florida court bars immigrants in U.S. illegally from being lawyers

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 06, 2014 5:38 PM

By Bill Cotterell

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Immigrants in the U.S. illegally, including those who moved as children, cannot work as lawyers in Florida, the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Thursday even as its sole Hispanic member decried the decision as unjust.

The unsigned ruling on a question from the Florida Board of Bar Examiners read like a plea for the state legislature to change the law on professional licensing.

It stemmed from an application for bar admission by a Tampa-area resident who is a Mexican immigrant and Florida State University law school graduate. Jose Manuel Godinez-Samperio received a waiver exempting him from showing proof of residency or citizenship to take the state bar exam and passed the test in 2011.

Lawyers working in the state are required to become members of the Florida Bar, which is overseen by the state Supreme Court.

In the ruling, the justices noted the Obama administration's actions halting deportation of people whose parents overstayed visas or entered the country illegally many years ago. But they said those executive policies "are not laws passed by Congress" and do not authorize Florida "to disregard the laws currently enacted by Congress and admit unauthorized immigrants into Florida Bar membership."

The court said federal law permits states to make exceptions to citizenship requirements for professional licensing, but Florida has not done so.

The justices noted that California recently permitted another person who had entered the U.S. illegally as a child to join that state's bar association.

Justice Jorge Labarga reluctantly concurred with the Florida ruling in a rare personal statement that decried "the injustice of this decision." He wrote that the unidentified bar applicant was like himself, except for his location of birth.

He wrote that Godinez-Samperio, then 9, and his parents entered the United States from Mexico with visas but decided to stay. He noted the man was a good student, an Eagle Scout and did everything required of a lawyer.

Labarga recalled that when his parents brought him from Cuba in 1963, they "were perceived as defectors from a tyrannical communist regime" and were "received with open arms." His path to citizenship, education and career advancement was wide open, Labarga said.

"Applicant, however, who is perceived to be a defector from poverty, is viewed negatively because his family sought an opportunity for economic prosperity," he wrote.

"It is this distinction of perception, a distinction that I cannot justify regarding admission to The Florida Bar, that is at the root of applicant's situation."

Godinez-Samperio, 27, said in an interview that he planned to take the issue to the state legislature.

"We just want the legislature to fix it, basically," said Godinez-Samperio, who works as a paralegal at the Clearwater office of Gulf Coast Legal Services.

He said he was encouraged by the justices' written ruling and moved by Labarga's words.

"I'm not giving up on Florida," he said.

(Additional reporting by Saundra Amrhein in Tampa. Editing by David Adams and Amanda Kwan)