BY JAMES L. ROSICA
TALLAHASSEE — People in the country illegally could become licensed to practice law under bill language approved Thursday by the Florida Senate.
The change, if eventually passed by both chambers and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, could immediately benefit a Tampa Bay man who entered the country as a child and stayed long beyond his family’s tourist visa.
Senators passed the language on close voice votes as amendments to a family law bill.
The vote came after more than an hour of debate, including supporters quoting from the Bible and reading aloud the “Give me your tired, your poor” poem on the Statue of Liberty.
Opponents warned that passing the measure was a slippery slope, with one suggesting that terrorists might try to get law licenses.
The votes highlight the tension this legislative session on immigration-related issues. Last week, a bill granting in-state tuition to undocumented college students was seemingly killed when a key budget committee declined to hear it.
The state Supreme Court last month ruled that federal law prohibits Florida from granting a law license or similar “public benefits” to Jose Godinez-Samperio and others like him.
Godinez-Samperio, who now lives in Largo, graduated with honors from Florida State University’s law school. He came to the United States on a tourist visa from Mexico with his parents when he was 9.
He passed the state’s bar examination in 2011. He’s an Eagle Scout and was his high school’s valedictorian.
Florida’s Board of Bar Examiners asked the court for an advisory opinion, which said federal law allows a state to pass its own law to “override the federal barrier and provide a state public benefit to unauthorized immigrants.”
Godinez-Samperio received a work permit in 2012 as part of President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. That program stopped the deportation of immigrants brought to the United States as children. He’s been working as a legal-aid paralegal in Clearwater.
Orlando Democrat Darren Soto introduced the first amendment, which permits the Florida Supreme Court to admit otherwise qualified bar applicants “not lawfully present” in the country.
Altamonte Springs Republican David Simmons added further language to require such “unauthorized immigrants” to have been “brought to this state as a minor” and then to have lived here for 10 years.
Simmons quoted Ezekiel 18:20 -- “the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father” -- and argued that children brought here illegally shouldn’t be punished for their parents’ acts.
“This is compassion; this is justice,” he said of his proposal.
Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, said Godinez-Samperio should have sought to become a U.S. citizen before now.
“At some point, a boy becomes a man and is responsible for his actions,” he said.
But Sandy D’Alemberte, Godinez-Samperio’s former law professor and present lawyer, told reporters his client would have to return to Mexico and stay there for 10 years before being eligible to seek citizenship.
“Hell, he doesn’t know Mexico,” D’Alemberte said. “He’s been here for 18 years.”
The bill (HB 755) remains on “third reading,” meaning it needs a final vote in the Senate, followed by passage in the House.
Time is short, though, with the session scheduled to come to a close next Friday.