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Florida Court Says Illegal Immigrants Can't Be Given License to Practice Law

March 5, 2014 - 6:00pm

Illegal immigrants cannot be given a license to practice law in Florida, the Florida Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

The unanimous decision revolved around the case of Mexican immigrant Jose Godinez-Samperio, a Florida State University law school graduate who came to the country at the age of 9 with his parents. His parents visitors visas expired, but they continued to stay in the country illegally.

Godinez-Samperio excelled in America. He became valedictorian of his high school class. He was an Eagle Scout. He attended college, and later law school. He studied for the bar exam -- and passed -- in 2011. He reached a road block, however, when the time came to be admitted to the Florida Bar. Last year, the Florida Supreme Court denied his motion for admission to the Florida Bar.

To Justice Jorge Labarga, who will become the first Cuban-American chief justice in Florida in July, Godinez-Samperio is "the type of exemplary individual the Florida Bar should strive to add to its membership."

But the court ultimately said a 1996 federal law prohibits people who are unlawfully in the country from obtaining professional licenses -- including a license to practice law. The justices said its possible for state law to override the federal ban, but Florida hasnt yet taken any steps 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.

Labarga related closely with Godinez-Samperio, comparing his story to Labarga's own life.

In many respects, the applicants life in the United States parallels my own, wrote Labarga. He and I were brought to this great nation as young children by our hard-working immigrant parents. We both learned to read, write, and speak the English language within a short period of time. We excelled scholastically and graduated from college and law school."

Some legislators expressed their disappointment over Thursdays ruling, sounding off that the courts decision symbolized a real need for immigration reform in the United States.

I believe todays ruling epitomizes the flaws in our nations broken immigration system and the need for comprehensive immigration reform, said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa. By all accounts, Jose has proven himself to be a hard-working law school graduate of high honors who simply wants to continue contributing to our state and nation. I share in the disappointment over todays ruling.

Despite the unified vote on the issue, Labarga urged the Florida Legislature to change the law to end exclusion of illegal immigrants.

"The Florida Legislature is in the unique position to act on this integral policy question and remedy the inequities that the unfortunate decision of this court will bring to bear," he wrote.

Reach Tampa-based reporter Allison Nielsen atAllison@sunshinestatenews.comor follow her on Twitter at @AllisonNielsen.

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