Jose Godinez-Samperio of Largo sits in the office of Gulfcoast Legal Services in Clearwater.
CLEARWATER – Jose Godinez-Samperio of Largo passed the Florida Bar Examination on his first try, the summer after he graduated from the Florida State University School of Law in 2011.
He’s lived in Florida since he was 9, became an Eagle Scout, graduated from Armwood High School in Tampa at the top of his class and went to New College of Florida on private scholarships.
By most accounts, Godinez-Samperio should have been a shoo-in for admission to the Florida Bar. But he’s not a citizen. He doesn’t have a green card or a visa. The Florida Board of Bar Examiners didn’t know what to do with an undocumented resident from Mexico who passed the exam.
“I was very surprised, because I know a lot of undocumented people, and I was very surprised that none of them had even gone to law school and had that issue before,” said Godinez-Samperio during an interview at his workplace in Clearwater.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled that a federal law precluded “aliens” like Godinez-Samperio from receiving the public benefit of a professional license. Only a state law could opt out of the federal requirement, the majority opinion stated.
“It was a bit of a shock to a lot of people when on March 6 of this year, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that if anyone could change it, it was the Florida legislature. It blew everything out of the water,” Godinez-Samperio explained.
It meant that, two and a half years after passing the bar exam, he still had more work to do to become a lawyer. The board of bar examiners has yet to act on the new state law that passed last month, a result of his successful lobbying effort.
But Godinez-Samperio’s path has never been an easy one.
An undocumented youth
Godinez-Samperio grew up without many of his peers knowing his immigration status. He was born in Pachuca and lived in Actopan as a boy, both in the Mexican state of Hidalgo. He has fond childhood memories of mountains and his large extended family.
But things got bad after the economic crisis that rapidly devalued the Mexican peso in December 1994. His family decided to come to the United States on a yearlong tourist visa.
On Dec. 7, 1995, they flew from Mexico City to Orlando. Jose was 9, and it was his father’s birthday.
“I remember it very clearly,” Godinez-Samperio said.
He said he doesn’t think his parents planned to stay past the year granted by the visa. Lots of Mexicans came to the United States that year to escape the political upheaval.
“Things were very difficult trying to make ends meet, and Mexico was not easy,” he said. “We didn’t come back.”
He grew up in Seffner, outside of Tampa. He learned English, but couldn’t read as fast as his peers. His biggest hurdle, however, was not having an ID.
“I remember always having to make up excuses why I didn’t have a car or couldn’t drive and didn’t have a license,” he said. “My friends didn’t know I was undocumented.”
Godinez-Samperio was a good teenager, a Boy Scout who eventually earned Eagle Scout status. He told his friends that his parents just wouldn’t let him have a license, but they had a hard time thinking of him as someone who got in trouble. Even simple things, like getting a library card with a Mexican ID, were a hassle.
When he was 17, a school administrator at Armwood High School discovered that Godinez-Samperio, on his way to becoming valedictorian, was undocumented. He knew Godinez-Samperio would have a hard time getting into college with his immigration status, so he brought him to Gulfcoast Legal Services in Clearwater to get advice.
“I already pretty much knew there was nothing I could do, because I had already talked to a lot of immigration lawyers,” he said.
The lawyers at the office where Godinez-Samperio would be employed years later told him that the best they could do was to see if a congressman would sponsor a bill to change the law.
“Nobody wants to pass immigration reform,” Godinez-Samperio said. “Nobody’s very serious about it. Nobody was serious about it then.”
The law student
Godinez-Samperio didn’t have access to financial aid or in-state tuition. Using only private scholarships, he attended New College of Florida. He studied anthropology, but developed an interest in law.
As he neared graduation, he realized that he had very limited choices. A doctorate in anthropology would require that he travel outside the country and become an employee of the school as a graduate assistant. He could do neither.
“I thought ‘I can probably affect more people’s lives with a law degree,’” Godinez-Samperio said. “Either way, I was deciding to take a risk … The chances that a law school was going to take me were very low.”
He wrote an admissions essay to Florida State University College of Law about what it was like to be undocumented. The school accepted him and became a strong advocate for Godinez-Samperio in his later legal and legislative fights.
“I think for them, it must have been like one of those very tough civil rights decisions in ’50s and ’60s: ‘We know we’re going to get a lot of flak for it, but it’s the right thing to do,’” he said.
Once enrolled, he was introduced to Talbot “Sandy” D’Alemberte, a constitutional law professor at FSU who helped him find resources to pay for tuition, including private scholarships and internships. Through his own efforts, Godinez-Samperio was selected for a Public Service Fellowship. The general counsel at New College, who had introduced him to D’Alemberte, let him stay at a house he owned in Tallahassee to help cut down on his living expenses.
Until D’Alemberte helped him find a used bicycle, Godinez-Samperio, who still didn’t have a drivers license, was walking to the FSU campus, through the weather and carrying heavy law books.
“You think about all the hurdles that somebody as Jose had to jump over in order to get to where he got. There’s not many people as tenacious as Jose,” D’Alemberte said.
D’Alemberte and his wife and law partner, Patsy Palmer, have represented Godinez-Samperio pro bono in his efforts to gain entrance to the Florida Bar. The law student impressed them right away.
“The people who owned the house where he was living said they couldn’t get over how hard he studied,” Palmer said. “They joked that their kitchen table has two grooves in it where Jose propped his elbows while he was reading.”
During his last semester of law school, the Florida legislature introduced anti-immigration bills, modeled after laws that had passed in Arizona, that would have cracked down on undocumented residents like Godinez-Samperio.
“I was very stressed,” he said. “That March of 2011, I went to the Florida legislature, and I told the world I was undocumented. When that happened, a lot of angry people called FSU College of Law.”
It wasn’t the first time Godinez-Samperio had fought for better immigration laws. Since high school, he had lobbied for immigrants like himself to be eligible for in-state tuition. He became active in the youth movements United We Dream Tampa Bay and Young American Dreamers, groups that united undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States since they were children.
Godinez-Samperio graduated from law school in May 2011. Before he took the bar exam in July, D’Alemberte filed a petition on his behalf asking the Florida Board of Bar Examiners to waive any policy that would prevent an undocumented student from doing so. It was a precautionary measure, as there was no official rule against it, D’Alemberte explained.
Godinez-Samperio found out in September that he had passed. Two months later, he received another letter.
“Rather than just admitting him as they do with everybody else, the board of bar examiners was going to the Florida Supreme Court and asking for an advisory opinion,” D’Alemberte said.
A federal law passed in 1996, 8 U.S. Code 1621, both defines a professional license as a public benefit and bars any immigrant who doesn’t meet certain standards from receiving that and other state and local benefits. Only a state law can circumvent the requirement. Until recently, Florida had no such law.
D’Alemberte argued to the Supreme Court that Article V of the Florida Constitution barred the legislature from interfering in the Florida bar process. He was surprised that the state justices decided otherwise.
“We thought the court did have jurisdiction to entertain the waiver to opt out of the federal law,” he said.
Before the court’s final decision, Godinez-Samperio and his fellow ‘Dreamers’ had another victory. In June 2012, he was protesting with his friends in the United We Dream group outside of President Barack Obama’s reelection offices in Tampa. The group had a stack of petitions, asking for an executive order that would allow them to stay in the United States legally. But the offices were closed.
Two days later, on June 15, 2012, Obama issued a directive that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would not deport undocumented youth that met specific qualifications. It was the measure the Dreamers had been advocating for years.
“At some point, I think he realized it was going to affect his re-election if he didn’t do it,” Godinez-Samperio said. “Because it looked bad for the Dreamers to be shutting down Democratic campaign offices all over, especially in a battleground state like Florida.”
Godinez-Samperio applied for deferred action immediately after the order went into effect. On Christmas Eve 2012, Godinez-Samperio finally had legal permission to be in the United States, which allowed him to apply for a work permit.
Aside from being able to seek employment outside of the leadership consulting business he had started after graduating, Godinez-Samperio thought the work permit would help his case. During a hearing in October of that year, the Supreme Court justices had questioned the point of a law license since he still couldn’t legally work.
“I knew that it might not give me everything I wanted because it wasn’t a green card, it wasn’t citizenship or anything like that. But I thought it would at least allay some of the fears of the court,” Godinez-Samperio said.
The lawyers at Gulfcoast Legal Services, where he had interned over two summers, found out that his work status has changed and offered him a job. He was happy to join their efforts to represent the unrepresented.
“It’s the only organization that does work that it does, especially for immigrants,” he said.
In March 2014, the Supreme Court announced their decision, stating that they did not have the authority to opt out of the federal law. In his “reluctantly” concurring opinion, Associate Justice Jorge Labarga, originally from Cuba, stated that he saw a lot of similarities in his own path from immigrant to law school graduate. It was a difference in perception only that heralded the Labarga family “as defectors from a tyrannical communist regime,” while looking negatively on Godinez-Samperio as a “defector from poverty,” he wrote.
“We were happy to see the concurring opinion, which was fairly sympathetic to Jose and urged the legislature to adopt a law,” D’Alemberte said. “At that point we became legislative lobbyists.”
Labarga’s opinion was useful as Godinez-Samperio and his legal team set off to lobby state legislators for a new law, which D’Alemberte said he thought might be “mission impossible.” They found out otherwise.
“I attempted to work with the legislature on other issues before, and it was always a disaster,” Godinez-Samperio said. “I was surprised to see how much support there was, even at the beginning.”
For 10 years, he had advocated with other Dreamers for a bill allowing undocumented Florida students to receive in-state tuition. The 2014 legislative session that saw that bill finally pass also supported his efforts to become a lawyer.
The best advocate for the change was Godinez-Samperio himself, his lawyers said. A senator said on the floor that “Jose has done everything that we ever ask children who are born here to do to achieve the American dream,” Palmer explained, paraphrasing the comment.
“His own accomplishments (and) just meeting him made such a difference,” Palmer said. “I think he was a great ambassador also for helping change people’s mind on what it means to be undocumented.”
The change came as an amendment to a bill that passed both houses by May 2.
“It was very quick,” Godinez-Samperio said. “It was changing every day. It was hard to know what to do.”
Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law May 19.
A future lawyer
Godinez-Samperio is still waiting to hear back from the board of bar examiners on the process for admittance now that there is legal means for him to become a lawyer. His bar exam scores are good for another year, and his lawyers have high hopes for his upcoming career.
“He’s taken a crash course in being a lawyer just having been kept out of practice for a while,” Palmer said. “When he is finally sworn in, he will be able to do just wonderful things.”
Godinez-Samperio said he wants to stay at Gulfcoast Legal Services when he is finally qualified to give legal advice. While his case is soon to be resolved, he said that the country has a lot of work to do to fix its immigration system. Even his own immigration status is far from concrete. People often ask him why he doesn’t “just apply for citizenship” without realizing how impossible the system is, he said.
“I don’t qualify. And even if I went back to Mexico, I still probably wouldn’t qualify and even if I did, I’d have to wait 10 years, unless I got some sort of waiver. And that’s just for a green card, that’s not even for citizenship,” he explained.
The biggest problem is a lack of understanding from the general public, Godinez-Samperio said. Still, there is reason to hope.
“Something that’s great about the question, ‘Why don’t you just apply for citizenship?’ is that there’s a premise behind it,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Why wouldn’t we want you here?’ I think people feel that way about immigrants in general.”