Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Florida could exempt non-citizen lawyer

As unfair decisions go, the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling that a meritorious law school graduate who aced the Florida Bar cannot practice law because he’s not a U.S. citizen was at least delivered with dignity and empathy.

It’s not everyday that a high court recognizes its decision as “an injustice” — and calls on lawmakers to change the law that forced its hand. Or that a justice cites his immigrant story rendering a concurring opinion “reluctantly.”

But that’s how emotionally taxing it was for Justice Jorge Labarga, a Cuban-American, to join his colleagues in unanimously denying Jose Godinez-Samperio, a Mexican immigrant who has lived most of his life in Tampa, the right to become a lawyer.

“He and I were brought to this great nation as young children by our hardworking immigrant parents,” Labarga wrote in his opinion. “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. … Both of us were driven by the opportunities this great nation offered to realize the American dream.”

But that’s where the similarities end — and Godinez-Samperio’s uphill battle against a state particularly unfriendly to non-Cuban immigrants begins.

Had Godinez-Samperio been Cuban — landing in this country legally or illegally — he would have obtained residency after a year and a day of arrival, and he would by now be a U.S. citizen and a practicing lawyer.

Godinez-Samperio’s parents brought him legally to the United States when he was 9, but they overstayed their tourist visas. It wasn’t an act of convenience but of sacrifice on behalf of their son’s future. A veterinarian in Mexico, his father milked cows for a living here. His mother, a dentist, worked in a sliding-glass factory.

So while Labarga’s parents were “perceived as defectors from a tyrannical communist regime … received with open arms, our arrival celebrated, and my path to citizenship and the legal profession unimpeded by public policy decisions,” Godinez-Samperio remains one of the 800,000 to 1.4 million youths living in limbo.

“Perceived to be a defector from poverty,” and “viewed negatively because his family sought an opportunity for economic prosperity,” Labarga wisely points out, Godinez-Samperio, 26, has never been able to legalize this status. Because of this distinction, the Supreme Court couldn’t rule in favor of his admission to the Florida Bar.

“Truly disappointing,” Miami attorney Stephen N. Zack, one of the former American Bar Association presidents who filed a friend-of-the court brief in support of Godinez-Samperio, told me. “It’s not an equitable result.”

A 1996 federal law, vehemently (and unfortunately) argued in this case by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, denies undocumented immigrants specific “state public benefits” paid for by taxpayers, including a license to practice law granted by a state court — unless a state declares an exception.

The California Legislature exempted an immigrant in the same circumstances as Godinez-Samperio. But while Florida licenses other professionals like doctors and nurses who aren’t citizens, it doesn’t lawyers.

A circumstance that could be readily fixed by the legislature in session, if only lawmakers had a heart to feel what Justice Labarga felt, and to see this young man for what he is — an exemplary Floridian.